‘Swallow the Air’ by Tara June Winch

2006, 198 p.

This is only a small book that fits right into your hand.  It is a series of short vignettes,  surrounded by quite a bit of white space, with several pages separating each chapter from the next.  The Sydney Morning Herald review of the book likened it to “short stories strung together like beads on an outlandish necklace”, and I found myself thinking of it in much the same way- as a series of small, glittering stones, carefully polished.  I soon stopped reading through the book quickly, but instead took my time, turning over her language and concentrating on the close-up, rather than striding through the broader arc of the story.

There is an overarching narrative in this book: it is essentially a quest story as a young girl leaves home after the death of her mother, who was raising her family alone and battling her own demons.

When Billy and me lost our mother, we lost ourselves.  We stopped swimming in the ocean, scared that we’d forget to breathe.  Forget to come up for mouthfuls of air.  We lost trust because we didn’t want to touch something that was going to fall away.  Like bubbles, too delicate, too fragile, too brief.

Her brother, Billy, had descended into his own half-light of drug addiction, and her aunt, who had taken over care of the siblings had her own battle with alcohol. So sixteen-year old May Gibson set off north, looking for her father, looking for her mother’s people, looking for some sense of belongingness.  Her journey takes her to the Block in Redfern, to the red sand rodeos in outback Queensland, and to the ironically-named ex-mission town of Eubelong.  She finds acceptance in the midst of poverty, addiction and anger; she comes to distrust her own memories of her father, and her dreams of the embrace of a grounded, intact aboriginal family are dealt with brusquely.  As an author, Winch does not resile from the violence and hopelessness of these different settings, but she does also overlay this with the humour and easygoingness that exists alongside it, just as Maria Munkara and Alexis Wright have done in their own books. There are good people here as well as lost ones: truck drivers who don’t take advantage of a young, rather vulnerable young girl; Joyce of the Block who accepts her at the same time as pushing her out to keep searching; Aunty who is still there, even though May has travelled far away.  She has a good ear for dialogue.

However, in reading this book, I was more struck by the language than the overall narrative.  It is very carefully written- perhaps too carefully written?- with lyrical imagery that forces you to slow down. It’s more like reading poetry than a novel.  At times the imagery clags up the meaning and becomes nonsense (can, for example, sand be said to ‘stew’?)  but overall, it challenges you to take the book on the writer’s terms, rather than your own.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: Lisa at ANZLit Lovers has held an Indigenous Reading Challenge to mark NAIDOC week (which, ahem, I am a little late to join).  Also, I’m reading this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

4 responses to “‘Swallow the Air’ by Tara June Winch

  1. Pingback: Reviews from Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ Litlovers 2012 « ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  2. A great review, Janine, I’m going to link from it to mine!

  3. Pingback: Swallow the Air by Tara June Winch « ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  4. Pingback: Australian Women’s Writing Challenge | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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