The Swan Book is set in the future, with Aboriginals still living under the Intervention in the north, in an environment fundamentally altered by climate change. It follows the life of a mute young woman called Oblivia, the victim of gang-rape by petrol-sniffing youths, from the displaced community where she lives in a hulk, in a swamp filled with rusting boats, and thousands of black swans, to her marriage to Warren Finch, the first Aboriginal president of Australia, and her elevation to the position of First Lady, confined to a tower in a flooded and lawless southern city.
The Swan Book has all the qualities which made Wright’s previous novel, Carpentaria, a prize-winning best-seller. It offers an intimate awareness of the realities facing Aboriginal people; the energy and humour in her writing finds hope in the bleakest situations; and the remarkable combination of storytelling elements, drawn from myth and legend and fairy tale, has Oblivia Ethylene in the company of amazing characters like Aunty Bella Donna of the Champions, the Harbour Master, Big Red and the Mechanic, a talking monkey called Rigoletto, three genies with doctorates, and throughout, the guiding presence of swans.
Alexis Wright is a member of the Waanyi nation of the southern highlands of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Her books include Grog War, a study of alcohol abuse in Tennant Creek, and the novels Plains of Promise, and Carpentaria, which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award, the Victorian and Queensland Premiers’ Awards and the ALS Gold Medal, and was published in the US, UK, China, Italy, France, Spain and Poland. She is a Distinguished Fellow in the University of Western Sydney’s Writing and Society Research Centre.
A hundred years into the future, when climate change has irreparably damaged the earth, a refugee from the frozen northern hemisphere called Bella Donna finds a mute teenage girl she names Oblivia and takes her to live with her on an old derelict warship in a dry, polluted swamp in northern Australia. Three new figures appear: a black swan, an Aboriginal elder who looks like Mick Jagger, and an archangel in a white Commodore. These five creatures anchor Alexis Wright’s brilliantly surreal and inventive novel about imagination and the power of story. It’s a treasure chest of stories, fables, songs, myths and poems, containing a wealth of cultural references from across the globe. The Swan Book is also a furious and impassioned political fable, linking the fate of Aboriginal Australia to the trajectory of unstoppable global warming and employing the fathomless complexity of the living Aboriginal relationship to country as a way of exploring humanity’s connection to the earth.
If Wright’s last novel Carpentaria – the winner of the 2007 Miles Franklin Literary Award – was operatic in its scope and language, then The Swan Book is even more so. Rich and deep in its imagery, fearless in its linguistic acrobatics and sweeping in its imaginative power, The Swan Book is at once a futuristic dystopia, a gorgeous artifact, and an urgent call to action.