Swallow the Air

by

Tara June Winch

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Swallow the Air: 7. To Run Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Tired of waiting for the situation to improve, May “[takes] the mango into my mouth” and decides to search for Dad. Aunty can’t appreciate the postcard as May does; she is too consumed by alcoholism. If she were a fruit, May imagines, she would be “the mango that breaks off the stem into my dad’s fingers.”
This is one of the novel’s most poignant images. May’s tenderness is especially notable given the unthinking callousness of her father’s postcard. This passage shows May’s capacity for love and longing for a stable parent figure, but it also builds a sense of foreboding in light of Dad’s obvious deficiencies as a father.
Themes
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May packs her backpack and leaves for a squat, or abandoned building, that she knows of through a friend. Squeezed between the highway and the train tracks, the house is decrepit, and a man and woman are arguing bitterly in the front yard. Inside, she finds a man sitting on the couch and introduces herself. The man remembers meeting May before and tells her she can stay as long as she likes, finding her a piece of foam to sleep on in his room. He tells her his name is Sheepa and that the house is a “community.”
In some ways, May is fleeing home to a place much like it, characterized by dereliction and domestic discord. At the same time, Sheepa’s conviction that the squat forms a “community” is an invitation to examine the ways in which its inhabitants do support each other, despite perceptible and serious issues.
Themes
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Sheepa asks May if she likes “poppies.” She doesn’t know what to say, but decides it probably doesn’t matter. Sheepa fills an old soda bottle with water and small black pellets of opium. He strains the water into a glass and tells May it will “take the hurt out of her eyes.” After May drinks it, she feels soothed and calm. Her bed of foam is like water and she feels the warmth of an open sky.
This is May’s first experience with drugs. Her feeling that it “doesn’t matter” what she does reflects the inevitable descent into substance abuse she sees all around her. This is a tense moment, as a developing addiction will derail not only her search for Dad but her ability to live a thoughtful and meaningful life.
Themes
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The opium causes May’s memories to replay like distorted movies. She remembers being with Dad in the garden, except that he’s crying as he shovels dirt and blood is spilling down his legs. Then she imagines she’s swimming in the ocean with Mum and neither of them need to breathe. She closes her eyes, and when she opens them again she’s standing in a lake. There’s a mango tree on the shore and a kangaroo standing next to it. The kangaroo stands still and looks at May. May wonders if she is gaining understanding or “losing grip, like Mum.”
This dreamlike sequence of memories mixes the idyllic—swimming and not needing to breathe—with the disturbing—Dad bleeding in the garden. While drugs make memories captivatingly accessible, they also prevent them from making sense. Normally May derives strength and guidance from consulting her memories, but now she’s afraid that they will lead to a mental illness like Mum’s.
Themes
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One day, Sheepa gives May some money and tells her to buy lunch at the grocery store. May shoplifts some extra snacks while she’s there; she thinks the clerk sees her but takes pity and lets her get away with it. May walks home in the intense heat, feeling as if she can “taste the dirt.”
Throughout the novel, May will find it difficult to obtain food. There’s a marked contrast between moments when she has to steal to survive, and later scenes in which she’s able to sustain herself off the land.
Themes
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When May arrives home, there are two new men and a woman in the house. One is Billy. She’s elated, but horrified to see that he’s clearly high. Billy sloppily hugs May and then hums to himself, unwrapping a package of heroin while the others watch hungrily. Their eyes are “sunken” and look like “golf balls.” Not wanting to watch them shoot up, May goes up to Sheepa’s room and stares at her few possessions.
While May remains wary of drug use, Billy has obviously embraced it. His overwrought happiness is a mockery of the last happy night she spent with him, on his birthday. Interestingly, May’s comparison of the people’s eyes to “golf balls” links this incident to May’s meeting with Percy later in the novel, who will repeatedly mention golf.
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In the middle of the night, May wakes up and goes to the bathroom. There, she finds a girl she’s never seen before lying inert and half-dressed on the floor. May rouses Sheepa, who dumps the girl in a cold shower and slaps her gently, to no avail. Sheepa and the others, including Billy, drag her corpse downstairs and abandon it “like evidence” on one of the waiting train cars. May feels like she doesn’t truly know any of these people, even her own brother. She packs up her backpack and heads to the highway to hitch a ride.
This is a moment of deep dehumanization. Although they’re just trying to be practical, Sheepa and Billy, perhaps dulled to the horror of overdose deaths, treat the girl as less than human. To May, their actions distance them from her, and prevent her from seeing even her brother as a deep and complex human. It’s important that May leaves when she realizes this—forced displacement is an evil repeated throughout the novel, but for May, voluntary relocation is essential to finding meaning in her life and preserving her sense of self.
Themes
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