Swallow the Air is Tara June Winch’s 2006 debut, which was published when she was 22 (making this an ideal read for prompt 5 of the Aussies Rule Challenge).
May Gibson and her brother Billy end up living with their aunt after the death of their mother. Neither of them can handle the violence meted upon their aunt by her boyfriend, and they both wander off to find places that are not as bad. May receives a post card from her father, who she hasn’t seen for a long time, and decides to find him. So begins May’s journey to herself, from her rough and troubled home in the Gong, halfway around the country and back again.
Winch captures the joy and freedom of easier times, and contrasts them starkly with the grief of the loss of not just the teens’ mother, but also their place in and by the sea. May talks about her mother’s stories and how she wishes there had been more of them. After an aborted attempt to find her white father, she realises that what she actually wants is to find out more about the Gibson family.
Winch also brings to life a distinct polarity of life before and after May’s mum’s death – freedom versus the prison of abuse and grinding poverty. The freedom of home versus the feeling of being an outsider, not just from society, but from your own life and history. The ending is not hopeless though and gives some relief do the direness of the novel.
There is a lot of struggle in this story – content warnings for suicide, domestic abuse, drug use, rape institutional child abuse and of course racism.
This book captured me from it’s dedication and gripped me throughout.