Of Exiles and Fairy Tales: The Swan Book by Alexis Wright

For Oblivion Ethyl(ene), aka Oblivia, the future is a world of suffering, imprisonment, and isolation. In Alexis Wright’s devastating novel The Swan Book, humans have pushed the earth to its breaking point. “Mother Nature? Hah!…People on the road called her the Mother Catastrophe of flood, fire, drought and blizzard. These were the four seasons, which she threw around the world whenever she liked.” Humans lost contact and connection to the land and so the land punished them for the betrayal.

Bella Donna of the Champions, a white woman from Europe, the sole survivor of a massive floating refugee camp attempting to cross the ocean from north to south to escape the worst effects of climate change, rescues an Aboriginal girl from a deep sleep within the hollow of a gum tree. The girl has no name, no past, and no voice, but as the story unfolds we learn she’d been the victim of a terrible sexual assault and was abandoned and forgotten by her people. Bella Donna names her Oblivia and fills her mind with fairy tales from her homeland of swans. Together they live on an derelict warship on a desolate swamp behind the fence set up by the Army to segregate the Aboriginal people from the rest of Australia.

When Warren Finch, Australia’s first Aboriginal president, claims Oblivia as his bride, she begins to live out her own fairy tale, one full of shadows and lurking violence. He is a man full of false charm and empty promises, and after being tarted up and trotted out first at his ancestral homeland and then to the southern lands of the Australian government, she’s locked in a tower. Oblivia must reclaim her homeland, her life, and her story, and she must do it before she loses any more of herself in the process.

The Swan Book is less traditional fantasy fiction and more an epic, literary poem. The story flows and pushes, every line and phrase a comment or implication of something greater. It is at once uniquely Indigenous and Australian, a masterpiece of Australian apocalyptic fiction and a bone-jarring stroke of Aboriginal narrative. Wright doesn’t just use language, she breaks it and refashions it for her own purposes:

“In all of this vast quietness where the summer sun was warming the dust spirit’s mind, the swan looked like a paragon of anxious premonitions, rather than the arrival of a miracle for saving the world. Seeing the huge bird flying through the common dusty day like this, disturbed whatever peace of mind the sticklike Oblivia possessed. Everyone watched a swan’s feather float down from the sky and land on her head. Oblivia’s skin instantly turned to a darker shade of red-brown. What about her frizzy hair then? Well! There was no change in that. It was always sprayed out in fright. Ngirriki! Messy! Always looking like tossed winter straw that needed rope to tie it down. She was psychological. Warraku. Mad. Even madder than ever…This is the kind of harm the accumulated experience of an exile will do to you, to anyone who believes that they had slept away half their life in the bowel of a eucalyptus tree. Well! Utopian dreaming was either too much or too little, but at least she recognized that the swan was an exile too.”

Bella Donna, Oblivia, the Indigenous Australians, the swans, all are exiled groups, deported or barred from their homes. For various interconnected reasons, none of them can return to their homelands. Bella Donna and the swans’ land was destroyed by the exploitive actions of Bella Donna’s own people, and both she and the swans fled the repercussions. The Aboriginal Australians are fenced in, cut off from their ancestral lands, cultural traditions, and environmental relationships.

And poor Oblivia is sent away by a people who do not care for her to marry a man who frightens her, who only wants to possess her as a trophy, and who traps her in a tower away from everything she’s ever known. Her story is one massive metaphor for the abuses, indignities, and banishments suffered by Indigenous people worldwide through the hands of the conquerors who strip the life from the land, the Uncle Toms who betray their people, and the do-gooders full of liberal guilt who transfer systematic oppression into microaggressions.

Oblivia is captivated by Bella Donna’s stories about her Old World swans, and in turn the swans are drawn to Oblivia. The gather around her wherever she is, whether by fairy tale magic or something else, and their spirits inspire and conspire. Warren is equally as enchanted by Oblivia as the swans are, but where they bring connection he only offers isolation. He has lost his culture, excised it during his tenure in the non-Aboriginal world, and so has lost his bond with his people, history, and land.

Oblivia’s journey is one of unknowns, uncertainties, unfathomables. She claims she has a virus in her brain and often “talks” to the voices in her head, and it’s never made clear whether she’s actually mad or is being haunted by the ghosts of the dead. Swans smother her story, appearing as guides, warnings, protectors, supporters, and psychopomps; some are real, most are probably fragments of hallucinations and fantasies, but The Swan Book is not a tale of truths. The line between what is really happening to Oblivia and what she imagines is meaningless and blurred. It is the story that counts, not its veracity.

There is nothing typical about The Swan Book. What little plot there is does not follow linear momentum or stylistic traditions. Wright has built a fantastical narrative out of a likely yet dystopian future. With astounding, anarchic, acerbic text she tells the story not just of Oblivia, Bella Donna, and the Aboriginal Australians but of the past, present, and future of colonial disenfranchisement, cultural malaise, and environmental devastation. In regards to content, tone, and context, it is a book that isn’t always easy to read but one that absolutely should be. It is at the height of literary fiction and the best of science fiction/fantasy.

The Swan Book is available now from Atria Books.

Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

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