Swallow the Air

by

Tara June Winch

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Swallow the Air: 8. Territory Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
May finds a ride with a trucker who is heading towards Darwin, which he says is a big town with “nice people and good pubs.” As they leave the ocean behind, May feels that she can breathe freely and finally stop thinking about the overdose girl. She wonders if Billy will ever wake up from his drug trance.
It’s notable that while the ocean is normally soothing for May, now she feels better when leaving it behind. Sometimes human ills overwhelm the power of nature to correct and resolve.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
May rides in friendly silence with Pete, the truck driver, listening to his country music and sharing his energy drinks. He’s delivering racecars to Darwin and is excited for a weekend at the races. In order to drive for a longer stretch, he snorts some cocaine in the middle of the night. May falls asleep in the cab’s bunk bed. As she dozes, she remembers her father repairing her bike outside their old house.
Pete’s cocaine habit—both casual and incredibly dangerous—shows how pervasive substance abuse is among people who have to work hard jobs for little money. It’s certainly not endemic to the Aboriginal community.
Themes
Substance Abuse Theme Icon
The next day, May wakes up achy and nauseous. She knows she’s experiencing opium withdrawal. If she can make it through this, she won’t crave the drug anymore, but she can barely swallow breakfast. Pete asks May about her ethnicity, unable to guess by her skin color. May tells him that Mum was Aboriginal, but lies that Dad is descended from “fancy folk from England.”
It’s interesting that May lies to make Dad seem more conventionally respectable. Right now, she’s less invested in her Aboriginal heritage and more interested in pursuing social inclusion and stability through a fairytale vision of her father. Later, instead of playing up her white heritage she’ll move towards disowning it.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Pete decides to take a detour to a local rodeo. They walk through a crowd of parked cars and May is happy to feel the wind blowing about her. However, when they reach the fairground, May is horrified to see men crowded around a brutal prizefight. They’re all watching the violence eagerly, even Pete. The smell of blood and dirt is revolting to May. She notices the big hats of the spectators and their “money shuffling hands.”
One of the worst things about this scene is that no one except May seems to find anything wrong with it—even mild-mannered Pete is enthralled. On one hand, this is a challenge to the strength of May’s instincts against the opinions of many others. Ultimately, it helps affirm her individuality and her ability to discern when something is wrong, even if no one else is objecting.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Related Quotes
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Suddenly, May recognizes that one of the people “watching the men bleed faces” is Dad. She says that some things are impossible to forget, and that she will never forget the day she encountered her father not as “the stranger I’d wished for” but as “the monster I’d tried to hide.” Dad has claw-like hands clutching a cigarette, and he hunches over as he watches the fight angrily.
May calls Dad a monster, and her description of him evokes an almost literal transformation from the man of her imagination to his actual self. Removed from the novel’s usual realistic tone, this scene highlights the unreliability of May’s memory, especially when it leads her into fantasies.
Themes
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Dad’s angry face reminds May of all his angry moments in the past. She remembers standing with him by the side of the house, watching him repair her bike. He tells her to stay outside and play and enters the house. Soon, May can hear him yelling and hitting Mum with the very same tools he used to fix the bike. May remembers watching her parents fight in the middle of the night. One time, he even poured boiling water on Mum’s face.
While May’s positive memories of Dad weren’t necessarily false, they were notably incomplete. This scene is one of the major challenges to the power and veracity of memory—especially since it’s May’s faulty memories that have led her on a pointless quest.
Themes
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
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Now, it seems to May that Mum was “a beaten person,” unable to stand up to Dad or even scream at him. All her pent-up rage must have come out the day she committed suicide. After Dad left, Mum became “paranoid and frightened of a world that existed only in her head.” May still remembers the “madness and fear” that descended on their household during this time.
Although May often thinks of Mum as stronger than Aunty, it now appears that she too was adversely affected by her relationship with an abusive man. Not only does May become disillusioned with her father, she has to come to grips with the grim reality of her mother’s life.
Themes
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Finally, having truly remembered Dad, May can “let him go.” She walks back to the truck and waits for Pete, who apologizes for the roughness of the fights. He asks where she wants to be dropped off in Darwin, and she tells him to leave her on the highway, since she’s decided to head somewhere else instead.
Although memory seems to be at fault in May’s disillusionment, it also provides a sense of resolution. By discovering Dad’s real character, May is able to stop fixating on him and start thinking about her own development instead.
Themes
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon