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“Told in dense prose full of evocative imagery, Wright's book deftly highlights the racial and cultural politics facing Australia's indigenous people in a story that defies genre. It is a challenging and heartbreaking story that illuminates the culture and struggles of an often overlooked people.”
"Astonishingly inventive." (O, The Oprah Magazine)
“Rich with allegory and symbolism, this wild, explosive story blends the myths and legends of numerous cultures in a dystopian near future…significant and contemporary, in the style of Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day (1988).”
(Booklist (starred review))
“Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book is hypnotic and disturbing…a very unusual book…This is definitely one of the books Sir Francis Bacon would recommend that we chew and digest.”
(A Bookish Type)
International Praise for The Swan Book:
"It is a bitter, lovely, and tragic book; and not only the author but also the publisher should be commended." (Australian Book Review)
"The Swan Book might be one of the most important Australian novels yet." (Sydney Morning Herald)
"Bears all the hallmarks of Wright’s astonishing narrative powers: her linguistic dexterity, mashing words and phrases from high and low culture, from English, Aboriginal languages, French and Latin; her humour and scathing satire; her fierce political purpose; her genre bending; her virtuosic gift for interweaving stories on multiple levels, from the literal to the metaphoric, the folkloric and the mythic. But The Swan Book takes all these – especially the last – to new levels." (Sydney Review of Books)
About the Author
- File Size : 4349 KB
- Publisher : Atria Books; Reprint Edition (June 28, 2016)
- Print Length : 321 pages
- Publication Date : June 28, 2016
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Language: : English
- ASIN : B0176M3PZQ
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Enhanced Typesetting : Enabled
- Lending : Not Enabled
- X-Ray : Not Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #315,297 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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The Swan Book was originally published in Australia in 2013 and later in Great Britain in 2015. It's great that Atria Books has published it in the USA and expanded its market area, because it's a novel that deserves more publicity due to its contents.
The events in The Swan Book take place in the future around the time of Australia's third centenary. The world has been fundamentally altered by climate change and many things have changed - towns have been closed, cities have been boarded up and communities have been abandoned. The world has been ravaged by floods, droughts, fires and blizzards. It's a world where Aboriginal people are living in a fenced and army-controlled detention camp where a contaminated swamp rules the landscape.
The protagonist is called Oblivia Ethelyne. She was given this name by an old woman, Bella Donna of the Champions, who found her from the bowels of an old eucalyptus tree. The old woman took Oblivia to live with her in a polluted dry swamp that is fenced off the the rest of the world by the army.
Oblivia has been through a lot and her life has not been easy. She is mute and has been traumatised, because she is a victim of gangrape. She can make only a few sounds, but she has a brilliant mind. She lives in an old hulk on the swamp. Her accommodation is surrounded by black swans and rusting and rotting boats that litter the swamp.
The author follows Oblivia's life in an engaging way. Oblivia's unique voice is a pleasure to read, because the way she thinks about the world and the happenings around her has a bittersweet edge to it that is lacking from many novels. Not only does the author follow Oblivia's life, but she also writes about Warren Finch's life and fleshes out his thoughts and reveals things about him.
The cast of characters is captivatingly strange and versatile. Reading about Aunty Bella Donna of the Champions, the Harbour Master, Warren Finch, a talking monkey and the genies with doctorates was fascinating for me. Bella Donna is a European climate refugee who has come to Australia. Warren Finch is an interesting man, because he has been educated by Aboriginal customs and becomes a political leader, a president.
The author writes beautifully about the swans and how they are a guiding presence to Oblivia. The swans are an important part of Oblivia's world.
Alexis Wright writes rich, descriptive and poetic prose that sparkles with nuances. Her beautiful prose is rich with bittersweetness, metaphors and symbolism. In my opinion, her narrative skills are superior to many authors, because she dares to blend various elements and experiments with certain things. She creates a heartbreaking narrative that examines the fate and culture of Australia's indigenous people in a touching way.
One of the most important reasons why The Swan Book stands out among others of its kind is that Alexis Wright writes well about Aboriginals. It is not often that readers have an opportunity to read about Aboriginals and their culture in such a rich and powerful way.
I think it's great how fluently and deeply the author explores the harsh realities and difficult situations that Aboriginal people have to face. Her way of writing about Aboriginals and their way of life cuts straight to the reader's heart, because she doesn't shy away from challenging and difficult material. I think that most readers have heard of what has happened to Aboriginals over the years and how badly some of them have been treated, so the happenings will have an emotional impact on many readers.
By blending realism with fantastical elements Alexis Wright is able to write about delicate issues in an original and inventive way. This novel is a prime example of how well a talented author can write about almost anything by means of speculative fiction, because speculative fiction allows authors freedom to explore difficult and painful issues in a striking and memorable way.
Worldbuilding is excellent, because the author delivers a bleak vision of a changed world. As a fan of dystopian science fiction, I enjoyed reading about how everything had changed and how it effected people.
Because The Swan Book is not an easy novel, it is not for hasty readers who rush through stories and never stop to think about what they've just read. It may not be for everyone, because it has been written for thinking adults. It's a novel that rewards its readers with a rich tale that has plenty of depth and layers, because underneath the beautiful prose lies a wealth of depth and raw emotion.
I was amazed at the quantity of various elements, because the author has added elements of magical realism, fantasy, science fiction, satire and politics etc to her story. I also marvelled at the author's ability to use stream of consciousness kind of narrative along with normal narrative mode.
I took my time reading this novel and I'm glad that I did so. If I had read it faster, I probably would've missed out on a lot of important elements and hidden meanings, because the text is filled with depth and thoughtfulness. In my opinion, this novel benefits from thoughtful reading, because it has the power to make you think about the world and people around you. The more you think about what you've just read, the more you'll enjoy the story.
When I began to read this novel, Alexis Wright's evocative and rich writing style immediately impressed me. Her use of expressions and language felt refreshingly vivid. I loved her way of writing about Oblivia and her extraordinary life. She wrote so well about Oblivia, her life and her feelings that I found myself being wholly spellbound by the unfolding story.
I think that readers who are familiar with the works of Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell will be pleased to read this novel and will devour it as fast as possible. This may sound a bit exotic and strange, but this novel reads a bit like a blend of Atwoodian dystopian science fiction and Mitchellian originality with a dash of harsh and unyielding realism. It also has a touch of the slightly experimental storytelling and narrative technique found in Tom McCarthy's C.
I give The Swan Book full five stars on the scale from one to five stars, because it's a literary masterpiece. I was deeply impressed by the story, because it's been a while since I've read anything as rich and thoughtful as it.
Alexis Wright's The Swan Book should be read by everyone who loves literary speculative fiction and beautifully written literary fiction. It's a fascinating combination of sparkling imagination, compelling storytelling and good prose.
‘Swans mate for life: that was what she thought.’
And what does the future hold for Oblivia in this novel? Oblivia’s world, with its swans, with its caste of amazing characters such as Aunty Bella Donna of the Champions, the Harbour Master, three genies (Dr Snip Hart, Dr Edgar Mail and Dr Bones Doom) and a talking monkey called Rigoletto. Who defines what is real, and how it impacts on the world? What does it mean to be homeless and dispossessed? In a world drastically turned upside down by climate change, where mass movements of refugees around the world are a consequence of cities drowning, local Aboriginal governments exist alongside high-ranking national Aboriginal politicians.
‘Should angels be eaten, even one, by so many hungry people?’
Oblivia may have been transported to a new world, but she is still part of her old world. The past, present and future are equally important. The swans are an integral part of all aspects of Oblivia’s world. Oblivia may be mute, but her mind is unrestrained. There is both great humour and (at times unexpected) humour in this novel. It is rich in metaphor and full of wonderful storytelling and difficult constructs.
‘A crescent moon moved so low across the swamp that its reflection over rippling water looked like the wings of a magnificent
So, what did I make of this book? There is not one definitive conclusion: ‘The Swan Book’ is one of those novels that has made me work hard in order to try to understand it, and will continue to occupy space in my consciousness. Is it about love? About climate change? About dispossession? About myth, culture and reality? ‘The Swan Book’ defines any attempt at simple categorisation, and it is not meant to be read and put aside. I enjoyed it, and I hated it, I laughed and I cried. And above all, I’m thinking.
‘Her mind was only a lonely mansion for the stories of extinction.’
Top reviews from other countries
The Swan Book is by more way than one a novel that blur the genres. It is also something quite unique and if you are the right reader for it, this politically and ecologically engaged fantasy novel from Australia set in the near future will be a delight to read. It is a unique novel and without a shadow of a doubt a major work of Australian literature and of speculative fiction that I'd recommend to any reader who isn't afraid of something very different and very literary.
Broadly, The Swan Book follows the life of an Aboriginal girl, Oblivia Ethyl(ene) Oblivion. Oblivia is rescued as a child from a hollow treetrunk and grows up living in the hull of a ship in a semi-dried lake, being raised by a white woman, Bella Donna. The community seems to be a mixture of exiled aborigines, deemed troublesome by the authorities, and migrants fleeing the effects of climate change around the world. One day, swans come to the lake. The swans seem to be a metaphor for different aboriginal nations, and Oblivia seems to be a cipher for aboriginal consciousness. She is distant from her community and spends much of her time in a dream-like state.
Then, one day, the lake is visited by Warren Finch, an aboriginal politician who has become vice president of Australia. Finch appears to be revered by mainstream society as the acceptable, approachable face of aboriginal culture. The trouble is, Oblivia and the swans can't recognise him at all. Finch claims Oblivia as his promised wife and takes her away to his home in the city where she spends half her time playing the role of Australia's first lady, and half her time effectively held prisoner by Finch's loyal man-servant Machine.
The book considers questions of Aboriginal identity, assimilation and self government. Some of the conclusions seem to be pretty bleak; a people brought up on welfare handouts who are unwilling to engage with the mainstream; yet who have been robbed of the skills, culture and freedom to engage in real self-determination. There are close parallels between The Swan Book and Irish legend. Indeed, the text references the Children of Lir - children who were turned into swans and condemned to stay that way for 900 years - as a story passed to Oblivia by Bella Donna. Opening this parallel to Irish legend opens the way to seeing successive waves of settlers on the land. Hence, if the swans are the Tuatha Dé Danann, Oblivia and her people would be the Fir Bolg, and before them was the origin of the lake under the Nemedians.
Alexis Wright doesn't seem to offer any way forward (and why should she?), but if the Irish legend analogy is followed through, we would remember that the Tuatha Dé Danann were displaced by the final wave of invaders, the Milesians. Is this an indication that the aboriginals are fighting a doomed battle for survival?
The political messages are made more powerful for their cloaking in legend and analogy. The reader has to reach his or her own conclusions, and perhaps each reader will reach different conclusions. This reader, as a relatively recent European migrant to Australia, may impose a different set of cultural values and expectations on the text to those readers who pick up on other textual references. Because, for all the swans, there are other birds. We have brolgas, we have currawongs, we have mynahs and we have Warren Finch. In many of the scenes, the birds have at least equal status to the people. This is certainly not a book that celebrates man's achievements and where cities and aeroplanes and lorries are mentioned, they are depicted very much as pollutants that are small blemishes to a much bigger, older and wiser land.
The heavy metaphor, use of dream sequences, absurdity and surreality make this a difficult book. The reader feels as though he or she is seeing just a small part of the full depth of this work. And it leaves a sense of unease with the accepted values and direction of society. But it is worth persevering with, even if much of the pleasure comes from having reached the end rather than the process of reaching it.