The Swan Book by Alexis Wright

*adapted from my dissertation*

Young, mute Oblivia Ethylene lives in a wretched and largely abandoned swamp community used by the army as a dumping ground for ‘unwanted’ people. She has been raised by a white woman known as Bella Donna, who is a refugee from the northern hemisphere which was destroyed by nuclear fallout. This created the volatile weather conditions that have so radically changed the Australian environment, effectively flipping the north and south climates, and creating simultaneous extremes of drought and floods. Unknown to Oblivia she is the promise-wife to Warren Finch, a young Aboriginal taken from the same community and raised elsewhere to be the poster boy for the Aboriginal self-management policies at the time. He grew up among the brolgas, learning the law of the country, and then ultimately became the Aboriginal Prime Minister of Australia (second only to the white one), with plans of overthrowing the government and becoming Prime Minister of the entire country. He returns to the swamp to claim his promise-wife, ignoring the protests of the elders, and takes Oblivia. He is, apparently, unconcerned with the stories about how she has been mute since she was gang-raped as a child, and intends to use her primarily as leverage to get Aboriginal laws passed into  legilsation. 
Unlooked for and unwelcome bodies, appearing out of their time, and with no custodian to speak for them are recurrent themes.  

Swans flock to Swan Lake, the decrepit shanty town that is homeland to the protagonist Oblivia Ethelyne, driven by the changes to the environment bought on by climate change. Warren Finch, who was also born in Swan Lake, appears and dredges up painful memories and disputes by demanding his promise-bride, who happens to be Oblivia. This upsets the elders because both the parties involved in the original promise are alienated now- Oblivia’s parents disowned her after her rape, and Finch’s family are dead. Finch himself was taken as a boy from Swan Lake and raised in Brolga country to become the poster boy for Aboriginal self-determination, the avatar of all Aboriginal people, and as such no longer belongs to Swan Lake.

The issue with the swans is that they have no custodian, no one knows their stories:

“Though they were previously unknown in this environment, the swamp people thought that the swans had returned to a home of ancient times, by following stories for country that had always been known to them. Swans had law too. But now, the trouble was nobody in the North remembered the stories in the oldest law scriptures of these big wetland birds.”

The problem, as can be seen in the preceding passage, is that the people of Swan lake have been cut off from the past. Vital information has been lost. The swans soon reach plague proportions in the swamp, tormenting the people that live there who go hungry because the swans are competing with them for already meagre resources, but the swamp people feel there is nothing they can do:

“But seriously, no one had ever hoped or prayed for swans to come into their lives. Why would they? Swan eggs. Cygnets. Good things. But not for eating in this place! These were law birds with no custodians in their rightful place. No one was that far down on their luck.”

The threat of the unknown consequences for eating the swans far outweighs, then, the benefit of a good meal, or even the ability to attempt to control the population boom.

Warren Finch is another such dangerous and unknown entity. In being connected to everyone and living everywhere, he is no one and lives nowhere. Taken from his homeland as a boy he was raised to represent all Aboriginal people in the hopes of eventually reclaiming Australia politically. In this respect, the hopes of the elders have been realised, Finch is a charismatic leader and has gained the deputy ruling position of the country. But in doing so, he has lost his connection to his homeland. No one there remembers him, and he does not feel any connection to it. As such, his power to save has been twisted and perverted, and he becomes a figure of ruin and destruction:

“Homeland? What did it mean anymore? … The world was in fact his home, homeland, place of abode, and where his people lived. There were no childhood memories in his mind.”

He demands to take Oblivia as his promise bride, despite repeated objections by the Swan Lake elders, and removes her from her country to take her back to his base of operations in the south. His three bodyguards, Doom, Mail and Hart, view this decision with apprehension. Once Finch has Oblivia beyond the limits of the swamp, he orders the army to destroy the settlement, and in the process not only obliterates the last tenuous connection between himself and his home, but also displaces his own people out of spite.

Like the Swans in Swan Lake, unlooked for and unknowable Oblivia is now a danger to others in her new home: “Doom, Mail and Hart could not put aside something that had been niggling them ever since they arrived on their country with the girl. None of them knew the stories from her country. They did not know anything about her, nothing of what she held within her or the spirits of the law stories that she now brought into their own territory. How would they know how these stories connected both countries?” 

Sansom, while discussing Aboriginal dreaming narratives, explains:

“A major doctrine is that humans cannot come to knowledge of vital truths by relying on sense perception alone. So, when moving onto strange country, the traveller cannot know that the twelve ghost gums at the river bank are, in fact, twelve left hand kangaroos… The consequence is that one ventures onto the land only after receiving the gift of words uttered by a local custodian who identifies the sacred in the landscape, drawing a mudmap that features both the resource rich places to visit and the forbidden Dreaming places to avoid.”

Indeed, it would seem that their fears are ultimately vindicated, because on the very eve of having his political ambitions realised, Finch dies in mysterious circumstances, mirroring Oblivia’s own anxiety that Finch would kill her by bringing her into country that she did not belong to: “This country would devour anyone walking on it  that did not know it.  Only local people would know how to move through it.” Of course, she is not the only interloper- Warren Finch himself does not belong to country either, and pays the price, allowing Oblivia to return to hers.
I really struggled with this book, I found it so abstract that it was almost impenetrable and on my first read through did not enjoy it. Rereading it over again for my dissertation, however, something clicked and I appreciated it in a way I hadn’t the first time. It’s a really funny book, and as an outsider to Waanyi culture I feel like I learned so much. 
I hope it is not offensive to say as a white person, but I felt a real attachment to the black swan having grown up in Koonawarra in NSW. When I was a little girl there was severe drought and the lake was severely polluted so for a long time there were no swans, but over the last few years the population is flourishing again and I love to see them out there.

 I give The Swan Book 3.5 black swans, and I am eager to read other books by Alexis Wright. 


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