Review: Jane Gleeson-Whiteon Alexis Wright

Going viral: The Swan Book by Alexis Wright

This is the saddest love story I have ever read. But not for the reasons you might imagine.

The Swan Book is Alexis Wright’s third novel and like her first two – Plains of Promise (1997) and the Miles Franklin Award winning Carpentaria (2006) – it opens in her ancestral country, the grass plains of the Gulf of Carpentaria. It 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. In August 2008, as part of her Oodgeroo Noonuccal Lecture, Wright said: ‘Oodgeroo absolutely understood the power of belief in the fight for sovereignty over this land – that if you could succeed in keeping the basic architecture of how you think, then you owned the freedom of your mind, that unimpeded space to store hope and feed your ability to survive.’ The Swan Book constructs this architecture of the mind – and, as with a mind, it operates in many dimensions simultaneously. It teems with songs, stories, images and fragments of culture from across the planet.

The novel opens with an arresting declaration:

Upstairs in my brain, there lives this kind of cut snake virus in its doll’s house. Little stars shining over the moonscape garden twinkle endlessly in a crisp sky. The crazy virus just sits there on the couch and keeps a good old qui vive out the window for intruders.

This virus is the crux of the novel. It is ‘nostalgia for foreign things’ and it manufactures dangerous ideas, including a ‘splattering of truths’ about ‘a story about a swan with a bone’.

In this surreal prelude, Wright introduces the basic elements of her unlikely love story about a girl’s affair with the northern skies and her quest to regain sovereignty over her own brain. Wright’s stakes are high. She is concerned with the human mind and its capacity to imagine, with the way stories are born from particular locales and yet can spread like viruses, travelling gypsy-like across the planet in the way of migratory birds, taking hold of minds in places they don’t belong. The Swan Book suggests that stories, their dissemination and cross-pollination, bear upon the ability of Indigenous Australians to govern their own minds, and by extension their land (these are inextricably linked) – and that this has implications for the future of human life on Earth.

The central character of this multilayered novel is a mute teenage girl, who is named Oblivion Ethyl(ene) by an old woman who finds her deep in the bowels of a gum tree. The woman, Bella Donna of the Champions, is a refugee from climate change wars. She has escaped her devastated country in the northern hemisphere, where ‘whole herds of deer were left standing like statues of yellow ice while blizzards stormed’. She eventually ‘invades’ northern Australia. Bella Donna takes Oblivia (as she is known) to live with her on an old warship in a polluted dry swamp, inundated with dust. There she fills Oblivia’s head with stories of swans. Fenced off from the rest of Australia by the Army, its traditional custodians left destitute, the swamp has become ‘the world’s most unknown detention camp’ for Indigenous Australians. Two more strangers appear at the swamp: a lone black swan, the first ever seen on this country, and an Aboriginal elder who looks like Mick Jagger and comes to heal the country from dust and drought.

The first chapter, ‘Dust Cycle’, introduces Mother Nature – or ‘the Mother Catastrophe of flood, fire, drought and blizzard’ – and reintroduces the prologue’s narrator with an equation: ‘Ignis Fatuus = Foolish Fire. That’s you Oblivion!’ Mother Nature, swans, the swamp, and three humans – girl, woman, elder – form the heart of this extraordinary novel, which is set 100 years from the present in a world that has been ravaged by climate change and the wars over land that broke out in its wake. Thousands of refugees like Bella Donna drift across the oceans in search of hospitable land. Most perish at sea.

Like Carpentaria’s Normal Phantom, Bella Donna is a teller of tales. She owes her life to a swan and has become the swans’ storyteller. After her people were forced off their frozen land they wandered, aimless and starving, until one day a single white swan appeared, ‘its wings beating with music’. It inspired them to remember first one, then a trillion swan stories, until they were singing, their faith in life restored. Such is the power of stories. With penetrating logic, Wright connects the fate of these refugees with that of Indigenous Australians cut adrift from their own land by white Australia, which is still attempting to run their lives 300 years later. She also links climate change to the issue of Aboriginal rights. In The Swan Book, the demands of climate change refugees for the right to land have led to the legal recognition of one Aboriginal group that has occupied its land since the beginning of time, and the creation of the first Aboriginal nation has forced ‘Australia to sign a treaty by bringing the country to its illegal colonising knees in the World Court’.

The main action of the novel is triggered when an archangel in a flash white government ‘Commodore thing’ drives into the world of the swamp, renamed Swan Lake, interrupting Friday night dinner and a television documentary about Aboriginal hero and Deputy President of Australia, Warren Finch. It turns out this archangel is none other than the same Warren Finch: ‘Internationally Warren. Post-tyranny politics kind of man.’ Warren is from a nearby Aboriginal community, the Brolga Nation, which has grown rich ‘with flukes of luck here and there called mining, and saying yes’. He is a charismatic man – ‘like a modern Moses’ – who intends to save the world. But first he must marry. He has come to Swan Lake to find his promised wife: the girl who was raped and found deep in a gum tree.

Fittingly for a novel which is about the human imagination, The Swan Book is Wright’s most marvellous imaginative feat yet. It tells a compelling story, but it also operates poetically, riffing on themes that recur like leitmotifs in a Wagnerian opera. As its title suggests, swans are one of its central motifs. The novel draws on the long cultural history of white swans, from Leda and the north-pointing Cygnus constellation, to Hans Christian Andersen’s story ‘The Wild Swans’, Wagner’s Lohengrin and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. It also evokes their physical form: their serpentine neck, their shapely curves, and their wings, which have fed our ideas and images of angels. Into this cultural history, Wright writes the black swans of Australia and the rich provocation of their colour and uniqueness. She carefully details the first recorded sighting of black swans by Europeans in 1697: ‘two black swans – a beautiful pair, swimming off the coast of Western Australia … a celebration for science, a fact stripped of myth … superstition come to life.’ The existence of a black Australian counterpart to Europe’s white swan provides Wright with the most fecund of metaphors.

The virus and the viral qualities of stories are another of the novel’s motifs. The Swan Book speaks to a vast sweep of storied time, from the Dreamtime to Odysseus (the original boat person and teller of tales) to today’s reality television with its makeover narratives and restaging of ‘real’ life. Oblivia herself is as much a motif as a fictional character in any traditional Western sense. Like the novel itself, she exists on a multitude of levels. As her name, Oblivion Ethyl(ene), suggests, she represents oblivion. She is the ‘Foolish Fire’, the dust, the drought. She is the swan princess, a vessel into which Bella Donna introduces her alien swan stories: her memory is ‘created by what the woman had chosen to tell her’. And she is Ethylene, a hydrocarbon found in crude oil that is used to produce, among many things, the ubiquitous plastic shopping bag and a hormone that ripens fruit.

Like all Wright’s work, The Swan Book is a novel of serious political intent. Its satire is directed at Australia’s continuing failure to recognise Aboriginal sovereignty and the dangerous implications of this, not only for Indigenous Australians, but also for the way Australia is inhabited – and for the way humans inhabit the Earth. The Northern Territory ‘intervention’, initiated by the Howard government in 2007, is one target of Wright’s satire. The novel portrays the intervention as a violation, a gravely mistaken presumption that politicians based in Canberra know more about caring for Indigenous children than their parents – and this after the 1997 Bringing Them Home report revealed the trauma and devastation caused by the forced separation of generations of Aboriginal children from their parents.

Wright’s clear eye is directed at all such government policies, which intervene in the lives of Indigenous Australians in an effort to ‘improve’ them, such as the recent ‘Closing the Gap Indigenous Reform Agenda’ with its euphemistic abstraction ‘closing the gap’. The novel’s position on these initiatives is clear: ‘Messiahs come and go, usually in the form of academic researchers, or a few chosen blacks and one-hit wonders pretending to speak for Aboriginal people and sucking-dry government money bureaucrats.’ It calls the European settlement of this continent for what it is – ‘illegal’ – and bristles with oxymorons such as ‘oasis of abandonment’ and ‘living the detention life-style’.

But The Swan Book is also funny. For example, it sends up Warren Finch’s hectic life of international appearances in a passage that makes clear the planetary scope of the novel’s political vision:

each time with ancient law holders by his side in his role (one of many) as the special old-law rapporteur to the world’s highest authority of elders for ancient laws, ancient scriptures, and modern Indigenous law-making. He was wearing yet another hat from his home hat, or his national hat, who knew these days. He had too many hats. They say he was leading the development of new laws for the world on the protection of the Earth and its peoples, after centuries of destruction on the planet.

Wright has been using fiction with urgent political intent since she published her first book Grog War (1997). A factual account of the war against alcohol waged by the Indigenous people of Tennant Creek, Grog War also tells the story of a fictional family affected by alcohol abuse. For her second book, Plains of Promise, a story of the Stolen Generations, Wright turned wholly to fiction at the request of her community, to protect individual identities. She has called Plains of Promise a ‘necessary fiction’ which tells many ‘truths’. By turning to fiction, she also broke with what had, until then, been the preferred genre of Aboriginal women writers: memoirs and autobiographies, such as Sally Morgan’s My Place (1987) and Ruby Langford’s Don’t Take Your Love to Town (1988). Wright’s second novel, Carpentaria, a family saga set in a fictional mining town in the Gulf of Carpentaria, was inspired by her experience with her Waanyi people fighting against the Century Mine in the 1990s. Alex Miller has called Carpentaria the ‘Great Australian Novel’. Assuming such terms still have any meaning in 2013, I agree with him.

In The Swan Book, Wright has projected her political concerns into the future, where the repercussions of Australia’s current failure to fully recognise Indigenous law, independence and sovereignty – despite the Mabo Judgment of 1992, the Native Title Act of 1993, and the Wik Decision of 1996 – and the destructive effects of rampant consumer capitalism have become blindingly clear. The novel suggests that the stories we tell are implicated in these problems – and are central to addressing them. It suggests that we need new stories for our new age, the Anthropocene. I think The Swan Book itself offers such a new story. It writes an Aboriginal understanding of the land into fiction, like the myna birds in the novel: ‘You had to hear these soothsaying creatures creating glimpses of a new internationally dimensional language about global warming and changing climates for this land. Really listen hard to what they were saying.’

Wright’s novels have always argued the power of nature and stories, their material entanglement in her human protagonists’ lives. But in The Swan Book these two agents take centre stage. Here a story can extrude a real world effect: ‘Something dropped into the water. Plop! Was this a fact that had slipped from her hypothetical love stories?’ And words have a quasi-material dimension: ‘You could almost reach out and grab each word with your hand.’

For this apparent blend of real and fantastic, Wright’s novels have been described by some critics as magic realism. But not only does this Western literary critical construct serve to reduce the Indigenous to ‘magic’ while maintaining the settler view as the measure of ‘reality’, it also fails to account for the complex reality of the world that Wright endeavours to bring to fiction. Her novels’ hybridity, their challenging of form and style, their foregrounding of nature – or Country – and the agency with which they endow the non-human world are part of a deliberate strategy on Wright’s part to embody in a Western literary form a contemporary Aboriginal cosmology in its entirety – with serious political intent and real world implications. Wright herself vouches for this reading of the multiple realities in her fiction: ‘The world I try to inhabit in my writing is like looking at the ancestral tracks spanning our traditional country which, if I look at the land, combines all stories, all realities from the ancient to the new, and makes it one – like all the strands on a long rope.’  Literary scholar Jeanine Leane has found the perfect generic term for the complex reality Wright’s fiction represents. She calls it ‘Aboriginal realism’.

The Swan Book is Wright’s most ambitious novel to date. If Plains of Promise is about the fate of three women severed from their ancestral land and Carpentaria is about a community’s battle to prevent the mining of its ancestral land, The Swan Book is concerned with the entire Earth. It is about the planetary phenomenon of climate change and how it relates to northern hemisphere stories, to Western cosmology, whose Christian scientific capitalist schema places ‘man’ above ‘nature’ as its namer and master. It considers how the heritage of wandering encoded in the stories of the West, from Homer and the Bible onward, might relate to the trespass of Europeans on Aboriginal land and therefore to Indigenous Australian sovereignty. The Swan Book writes an Indigenous cosmology – the deep and ancient knowledge of ‘nature’, of Country, held by the traditional custodians of the swamp – into this global story. The following passage from the novel suggests the scope of Wright’s ambition:

Still, all of these big law people thought tribal people across the world would be doing the same, and much like themselves, could also tell you about the consequences of breaking the laws of nature by trespassing on other people’s land. They were very big on the law stories about the natural world.

As yet, there have been few novels for this new age of climate change, in which – as environmental activist Anna Rose has pointed out – the most important story of all is not about relationships between humans but about the relation of humans to the Earth. Of the handful of environmental disaster novels that have appeared, Cormac McCarthy’s bestselling The Road (2006) makes an instructive comparison with The Swan Book. George Monbiot has called The Road ‘the most important environmental book ever written’. But here humans relate to the earth at one remove. They have lost their connection with it, ruined it. In McCarthy’s novel, with its Biblical Father and Son, ‘the environment’ operates as a spectacular apocalyptic backdrop for the human drama. Too late it is recognised for what it is: an entity with agency and with which human life is inextricably bound. McCarthy’s ‘environment’ is not a being – ‘Mother Nature’ if you like – in all its local particularity and unpredictable global force. Tellingly, The Road’s Mother has wandered off to embrace death before the novel opens, calling herself ‘a faithless slut’. Equally tellingly, the first time we see the father relate to the environment it at a distance, from above, mediated by the tools of science: ‘When it was light enough to use binoculars he glassed the valley below.’ The Road is dealing with a bankrupt cosmology, one that deems the environment to be an externality.

The Swan Book, on the other hand, presents us with the Earth not as an idea, not as spectacle, but as a vital physical reality with its own stories and knowledge, its own ontology. It is capable of actively nurturing life. It speaks: ‘It was land screaming with all of its life to the swans, Welcome to our world. All the spirits yelled to the girl to eat the water lilies.’ But this earth must be sung, danced, told. Without its stories this Country will die. In the same way, The Swan Book seems to suggest, perhaps this planet will die when stories, and the people and creatures who perform them,  are uprooted from their place, uproot themselves from their place, lose their connection with it. Unless a new story can be found, we are in danger of severing our relationship with the planet for all time, losing our voice for it, leaving only the birds ‘swearing at the grass in throwback words of the traditional language for the country that was no longer spoken by any living human being on the Earth.’

So what are we to make of The Swan Book? I think in this novel Alexis Wright is doing some complex new synthesising, conceiving, imagining. Like the best fiction, it is excessive, impossible to contain in any review, or any mental construct. It has invaded my mind and continues to make me think. Indigenous Australians have the oldest living culture on Earth. I think The Swan Book is asking us, especially non-Aboriginal humans, to pay attention to the vast store of knowledge of this continent, its land, its weather, that is contained in Aboriginal stories and law. It suggests that if we lose these stories the entire planet may perish: ‘Now the day had come when modern man had become the new face of God, and simply sacrificed the whole Earth.’

I think in The Swan Book Alexis Wright has written the first great novel of climate change. And perhaps the first truly planetary novel. I hope it goes viral.


Alexis Wright, ‘Politics of Writing,’ Southerly, 62.2 (2002).
Alexis Wright, ‘A Weapon of Poetry,’ Overland, no.193 (Summer 2008).
Alexis Wright, Arnold Zable, ‘The Future of Swans’ Overland, no. 213 (Summer 2013).