Toronto Book Review

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‘Boy Swallows Universe’: A Criminal Coming-of-Age

Dalton’s debut novel, “Boy Swallows Universe” (2019), embarks on a captivating journey through the tumultuous life of Eli Bell, a sensitive and intelligent tween boy residing in 1980s Brisbane, Australia. Initially presenting itself as a nuanced character study within the confines of Eli’s eccentric family, the narrative quickly escalates into the realm of a violent thriller. Eli’s world is intertwined with the local heroin trade, leading to harrowing encounters such as losing a finger to a crime lord, infiltrating a women’s prison, and narrowly escaping gang violence. As the plot unfolds, Eli transitions into a cub reporter, uncovering a sinister criminal enterprise that plunges the story into unsettling body-horror territory.

Filled with vibrant characters, Dalton weaves a tapestry of personalities around Eli. His older brother August, who communicates through enigmatic gestures, adds an element of mystique to his prophetic messages. However, some characters veer toward cliché, notably Eli’s mother, a recovering addict prone to tumultuous relationships with criminals and unstable men, including their absentee father. Despite these clichés, the characters contribute to the novel’s rich tapestry, offering insights into the complexities of human nature and relationships.

The miniseries adaptation, premiering on Netflix, faithfully captures the novel’s blood-soaked narrative, with screenwriter John Collee delivering a gripping interpretation. Felix Cameron shines as the young Eli, while Phoebe Tonkin infuses depth into the character of Eli’s mother. Stellar performances by Australian actors, including Simon Baker and Anthony LaPaglia, elevate the adaptation, lending authenticity to the story.

However, the miniseries’ dramatic climax ventures into melodramatic territory, featuring an array of sensational events culminating in a breathtaking finale. Despite its fantastical elements, the series retains a semblance of journalistic integrity, echoing Eli’s reflection on the blurred lines between reality and fiction.

In conclusion, “Boy Swallows Universe” captivates with its blend of family drama, crime saga, and surrealism. While the miniseries stays true to the novel’s essence, it occasionally veers into excessive theatrics. Nevertheless, both mediums offer a compelling exploration of the human experience, leaving a lasting impact on audiences.

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