Black Swans

20150529_085842‘A wild black swan in a cage

Puts all of heaven in a rage’

— Robert Adamson, ‘After William Blake’, quoted in The Swan Book

A few months ago I suggested to my book club that we read The Swan Book, by Indigenous author Alexis Wright. My suggestion didn’t fly. Two people (there were five of us) admitted they’d been unable to finish Carpentaria, another of Wright’s novels. They didn’t really explain why, they just looked a little embarrassed. But as soon as I picked up The Swan Book myself, I understood. It’s a challenging read.

Challenging, but so worth it.

0a2da575867a6a40e5b18b1844c561af_SThe day I started it, I read the prelude twice. When I closed the book, that first day, I sat for a few moments in the kind of reverent, satisfied silence that you feel after a moving piece of music.

But … I didn’t pick it up again straight away. It was only when I made the commitment to a fundraising readathon in early July, that I decided I would make the attempt to finish the book. I say ‘attempt’, as though I was about to climb a mountain. People ‘attempt’ Everest.

I felt this sense of trepidation because while my brief dip into The Swan Book had been exhilarating, it was also daunting. I’m lazy. I like an easy read, where the plot is clear, the symbolism (if there is any) is obvious, where you flow along with the story and don’t have to think too hard. The Swan Book is not for the lazy reader who just seeks entertainment and escape.

20150529_090018

This book demands that you pay close attention. It’s dazzling, overflowing with symbolism, and sometimes hard to follow. Each day after reading I would make notes in an attempt to understand more fully, and try to unravel the meanings. I’d reflect on Wright’s themes of racism, sovereignty, corruption, integrity, colonisation, climate change, refugees, the dystopian potential consequences of current government policies towards Aboriginal people in Australia, and of course — swans.

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It’s not just a catchy title. The book is full of swans. Thousands of swans. Huge flocks of swans and solitary cygnets. A swan egg that never hatches.

Sick, healthy, young, old, black, white, swarming, dying, singing, mute swans. Swans of myth and legend from all over the world, swans forced from their home territories by a changing climate. Golden barges pulled by swans.

City swans and poisoned swamp swans. Men that turn into swans. Swans as mentors, guides, inspiration, parasites, free spirits, or child-like dependents. Swans of mystery and miracle, of lore and Law.

20121226_075834Writing down my reflections on the book each day, my own words would fail me. Wright’s language is … incisive, vivid, startling, scathing, luxurious, surreal. Even as I struggle to keep up with the story, with the ideas, the language pulls me along fiercely.

‘He splattered his soul that was fat with complaints all over the kitchen table for the old woman to see what the world had come to …’

‘This was the new story written in scrolls of intricate lacework formed by the salt crystals that the drought had left behind …’

I realise I am completely inadequate for the task of reviewing this book, so I’ll stop right now. Instead, I share my swan pictures. I think they make a better tribute to the extraordinary power of Alexis Wright’s words and vision.


The Swan Book is the second book I read for a Readathon raising money for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. It’s also the second book I’ve read by an Australian Indigenous author for my own Indigenous Reading challenge.

This post is my response to the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge: Symbol.

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7 thoughts on “Black Swans

  1. This book actually sounds like a hard read, based on the two quotes you pulled out there, like it’s vivid in description as well and the symbolism is buried deep beneath these depictions. I’m guessing if the reader has some knowledge of Aboriginal communities and where they are located then it would make it a bit of an easier read. Beautiful photos of the swans. My favourite is the swan on the grass with its beak opened slightly as if about to take a peck.

    • Thanks Mabel. It is a hard read but I found it got easier as the story gets underway and I got more used to her style. I often had to reread sentences to be sure I knew what she meant, although having a cold at the time probably didn’t help my ability to comprehend! There is so much in it though – other reviewers have also acknowledged it’s a difficult book to even write about, she covers so much and her language & style are so unique.

      I think it would help to have more understanding of government policy and where different Aboriginal leaders stand on particular issues, I felt there were critiques in there of issues that I really didn’t know enough about. I really did enjoy it though.

      • Sounds like Alexis Wright is a strong writer, weaving in various threads and issues affecting Aboriginal communities altogether. I’m sure her writing on this issue is one of a kind, and that is what makes her stand out (in Australia) to some an an author.

        I hope you feel better and don’t get another colld. Winter is certainly cold this year (11-12’C tops in Melbourne this whole week) so take care.

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