Swallow the Air

by

Tara June Winch

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Swallow the Air: 6. Leaving Paradise Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Mum once told May that although “no one taught Billy how to fight,” he was tough ever since he was a baby, “before he could even swallow air.” Mum was very young when she became pregnant with him, and the doctors told her that he had a heart condition and might not live very long. Overwhelmed by the prospect of providing for a sick baby, Billy’s father ran away to join a rock band. A year later, Mum discovered that he’d rented a cabin in the mountains outside of Sydney and one morning jumped off a cliff.
Just like Dad, Billy’s father has left the family. His flight is a reflection of the difficulties surrounding family life in Aboriginal communities. At the same time, it highlights Mum’s strength: even though she ultimately commits suicide as well, she’s able to singlehandedly raise two children as a young woman with few resources.
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Feeling that her son needed a father figure, Mum found another partner, this one a white man, and gave birth to May a few years later. Billy was still sickly, often fainting or weak, but when he finally learned to walk, he was full of energy and never sat down. From then on, Mum knew he would survive. One day, May traces a scar left on his chest by childhood surgery; Billy says he can’t remember any of it, and they never speak of his heart again.
It’s important that Mum doesn’t teach Billy to feel ashamed of his physical weakness, but to work around it and eventually surmount it. Mum’s faith and pride in her children is essential when the society around them considers them lesser citizens.
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When Billy turns eighteen, he and May are still living with Aunty. Along with her boyfriend Craig, Aunty is a serious alcoholic and the house no longer feels like a stable home. May hates Craig because he’s violent and often hits Aunty, but Aunty rarely remembers the fights and won’t break up with him. Every night, May lies awake and listens for them to come home and start yelling at each other.
Aunty is replaying some of the tragedies of Mum’s life—she’s staying in a relationship that makes her life less, not more, stable. The only relationships May sees modeled around her involve absent or abusive male partners.
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On Billy’s birthday, May buys a cake and Aunty gives him a flask filled with bourbon. She tells him that Mum would be proud of them both. Billy invites May to see Terminator with him and his friend Vardy; he even pays for her ticket, and May thinks he’s “the best brother in the world.” On the way home, the boys get drunk from the flask and imitate the Terminator while jumping over fences. May has a sip too and feels dizzy and happy.
While Craig’s presence hints at the troubles May will have to face as she grows up, she’s happy to retreat into childhood and tag along with her older brother. May’s wary approach to the alcohol shows that, despite the substance abuse that surrounds her, she’s still a child with little experience or knowledge in these areas.
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When Billy and May get home, they find Craig holding Aunty’s face next to the red-hot stovetop. Billy grabs Craig’s arm and Aunty falls safely to the floor, but Craig punches Billy in the chest. As he falls open-mouthed to the ground, May remembers his weak heart. For several heart-wrenching moments, Billy lies still on the floor. Finally he gets up and, looking at Aunty, yells “miles and miles of hatred upon her.” He kicks a hole in the flimsy plaster and says he’s leaving this house and this town forever. He tells May to come with him, but she’s too stunned to move, and he leaves alone.
Billy’s love for Aunty is evident in his unthinking rush to her defense. At the same time, he’s furious with her—and understandably so—for staying with Craig and creating a home life that puts them all in danger. Billy’s attack on the wall locates this traumatic incident within the flimsy housing project, and all the social ills it represents, pointing out once again that domestic violence doesn’t spring from individual dysfunction but from external oppression.
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From then on, whenever May walks through Paradise Parade or to the beach, she feels Billy’s absence acutely. She’s always been close with her brother, sensitive to his emotions and rarely fighting with him, commiserating in their shared misery without needing to talk about it. Although May knows all his usual hiding places, she can’t track him down and he never returns to Aunty’s house. As she spends more time without him, May realizes that without Billy, “we were all gone.”
Although May thinks about Mum more than her brother, it’s Billy who provides the most stability in May’s life. Even the beach, the happiest place in her memory, means nothing without him. While the novel often focuses on the importance of certain places, especially in nature, moments like this show that these places are important primarily because they represent and facilitate indispensible human relationships.
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