Swallow the Air

by

Tara June Winch

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Swallow the Air: 20. Home Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
When May arrives at her neighborhood the tide is coming in. She walks to the water and when she feels the salt on her shins, she knows she’s truly home, feeling and smelling the air that she has always loved. She can tell that a storm is coming in and pulls her hood over her face. The ocean is “gray and sad,” except for the beautiful waves breaking quietly against the shore. The familiar escarpment lies behind her.
Previously, May regarded her neighborhood as a place of exile, somewhere her family was forced to move after being ejected from the land that once belonged to them. In calling this place home, she’s not forgetting about her heritage but learning how to live with it.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
May walks back up the beach towards the road, feeling that she understands the meaning of the word “home” for the first time. She feels that somehow Mum is conscious that she’s made it here. Moreover, she knows that she’ll always be at home wherever there’s water—after all, she, Aunty, Mum, and Billy are all of the Wiradjuri, or “hard water” people. Even though this beach isn’t her tribe’s native land, she feels that she and all her family are intimately connected to its water.
May is combatting her feelings of displacement not by forgetting about the traditional lifestyle she once dreamed of but by learning that she can feel connected to the land wherever she is. In a highly empowering moment, she’s claiming the right to belong alongside of—if not within—a society that has always pushed her to the margins.
Themes
Displacement Theme Icon
Related Quotes
May knows she could run away again and try to escape her family and its painful past. However, she knows that no matter how far she goes or how much she drinks or what drugs she uses, she’ll never be able to leave her family behind. It occurs to May that when Mum died, she and Billy both became lost. It was as if they were in the ocean and “forgot to come up for mouthfuls of air,” losing trust in the thing that had always supported them.
No perfect family waits for May, just as no traditional way of life persists undisturbed. However, rather than being discouraged by this realization, May decides to recommit herself to taking care of the family she does have and prevent it from fracturing more than it has in the years since Mum’s death.
Themes
Family Theme Icon
When May reaches her neighborhood, Paradise Parade is “warring”—many of the houses are in the process of being demolished, and construction machines sit in the street, paused during the rainstorm.
The displacement that May predicted at the beginning of the novel is actually coming to pass. This is a reminder that patterns of injustice aren’t limited to the past, but are still playing out and affecting lives in the present.
Themes
Displacement Theme Icon
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In high spirits, May walks through the broken fence and shouts that Aunty should get it fixed. She runs into the house to find Aunty drinking a beer in the kitchen; when her aunt sees her, she starts crying. Billy comes in from the living room and supports Aunty, as she sobs to May that she’s being evicted from the house. Although May is worried about Aunty’s tears, she’s relieved to see that Billy’s face is clear and he obviously hasn’t been using. Even though the house is crumbling, it still feels like home, and she’s happy to be here for the first time in years.
This is a moment of crisis—the family is about to lose its house, one of the few elements in May’s life that has always remained stable. However, it’s also a moment of great tenderness and solidarity; May is able to understand and appreciate Aunty as she didn’t before she left home, and it’s clear that Billy, who ran away under such violent circumstances, has come to a similar understanding as well.
Themes
Displacement Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
May sits down at the table and flips through the dozen tablecloths that are layered over each other on the kitchen table, all different colors and materials. She remembers visiting the house with Mum every time Aunty bought a new tablecloth. As a young girl, she was always excited to see the new purchase emerge clean and new from its shopping bag. Inspired by this memory, May suggests that they all go out and buy a new tablecloth—an orange one, she specifies. Billy looks up from the table and Aunty smiles. Suddenly, she cheers up and slaps the floor in delight, saying that they can’t kick her out when she has “a new tablecloth to wear in.”
Here, May explicitly and successfully uses memory to handle a present crisis, showing that she’s been able to come to grips with her childhood, sorting out which memories are useful to her and which are not. It’s also notable that strong and positive memory emerges here as an antidote to displacement, which threatens the individual Gibson family as they face eviction as well as the larger Aboriginal community.
Themes
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
May looks outside at the gulls that are whirling over the water. The wind has changed and for a moment the ocean appears clear. May can see surfers paddling for the next wave, and she hears an excavator starting up in the street. Its noise rises “over the sun” and “over the blue” of the sky. May asks herself what will happen if they stay in the neighborhood, if the excavators stop “digging up Aunty’s backyard” and “digging up our people.” If that happens, she thinks, maybe “we’ll all stop crying.”
The novel’s final image is enigmatic, integrating the nature that has always sustained May, the suburban surfers who are appropriating it, and the excavators that foretell the end of the family’s life in this place. The novel doesn’t resolve its many preoccupations or even promise happier times. However, May’s new cohesion with her family and her strength in her Aboriginal identity mean that she’s much better equipped to handle these challenges than she was at the outset.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
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