Swallow the Air

by

Tara June Winch

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Swallow the Air: 1. Swallow the Air Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
May remembers the day she realized her mother was “head sick,” or mentally ill. That morning, Mum makes helmets for May and her older brother, Billy, out of ice cream boxes, and sends them to go fishing in the ocean. She reminds them to go to Aunty’s house when it gets dark, and tells them that she loves them. When May looks back from the road, the door is closed, and Mum has disappeared.
Throughout the novel, Mum will be a central but elusive character. May’s love for her mother is evident here, as is the devotion with which Mum makes silly costumes for her children; however, May’s final remark that her mother has vanished from the place she expected her to be reveals the distance in their relationship, as well as Mum’s unreliability
Themes
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
May rides fast to keep up with Billy, who is carrying the fishing gear. Both children ditch their bikes on the dunes and run to the point, where they can see the water and the surfers. Last summer May saw a turtle from the same spot. It reminded her of Mungi, the “first turtle ever” according to the stories Mum tells. Mungi was a tribesman who suffered a fatal neck injury, but a watching ancestor gave him a shell to save his life. Mum has a lot of strange stories, some of which are about “the government and the ‘conspiracies,’” but the one about Mungi is May’s favorite.
It’s important that May’s knowledge of her heritage—such as the ancient myths she’s reciting here—stems directly from Mum. Mum is both May’s only real representative of Aboriginal culture and the reason that May respects that culture. Mum’s preoccupation with “conspiracies” reflects the understandable mistrust with which Aboriginal characters view the government throughout the novel; however, although May doesn’t realize this at the time, it’s also an indicator of Mum’s precarious mental state.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Exploring the tide pools, May finds a dead stingray draped across a rock “like a plastic rain coat.” She wonders how it died and says it has “swallowed its struggle.” May runs her hands over the swollen body and wonders what to do. In the end, she pierces its skin so that the fluids inside can be released, and feels she’s done the right thing. Although it’s no longer “whole,” the stingray looks “free.”
Even as a young child, May is highly attuned and sympathetic towards nature—she’s touched, rather than repulsed, by the dead stingray. For May, freedom can exist despite death; in this case, even though the stingray might have looked better when its body was intact, it’s actually more “free” now, when its body is broken.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Neither Billy nor May catches any fish, only some small shellfish called pipis. Billy says they should go to Aunty’s house and see if she has any food for them. Together, they wash their feet at the public tap; Billy makes fun of May because her feet are so light, calling her “coconut.”
Billy’s comment points out implicitly what May will later explain: that unlike her brother, she’s of mixed race heritage. For the children, the difference between their skin color is a joke, but Billy’s teasing is poignant in light of the racial injustice and trauma the novel will proceed to address.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
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When May and Billy arrive at Aunty’s house, they find a police car outside. In the house, Aunty sobs as she hugs them and makes them sit down at the table before she tells them what’s wrong. Finally, she announces that Mum is “gone” and “had to leave us,” sounding unsure of what she’s saying.
It’s important that while Mum has committed suicide, no one ever uses that word to describe her death. Stripping the event of clinical language, the novel turns a highly stigmatized event into a very sympathetic and individual tragedy.
Themes
Family Theme Icon
Substance Abuse Theme Icon
May takes off the makeshift helmet and thinks about the dead stingray she saw before, and about “Mum’s pain being freed from her wrists.” She feels that her mother has instructed her to “remember,” and knows that it is “all right not to forget.”
May imagines Mum’s body in much the same way she describes the stingray’s. However, while it’s easy to see that the stingray’s corpse was better off pierced than bloated and whole, it’s unclear (but still ominous) why Mum might be more “free” in death than she was in life.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
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