Swallow the Air


Tara June Winch

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Swallow the Air Characters

May Gibson

The novel’s protagonist, a fifteen-year-old Aboriginal Australian girl. May grows up in an impoverished housing project in the coastal city of Wollongong. Her Dad abandons the family when she’s a young girl and her Mumread analysis of May Gibson


May and Billy’s beloved mother. Mum is a source of traditional Aboriginal stories that delight and inspire her children; she encourages them to explore the beach near their house and cultivate a connection with… read analysis of Mum

Billy Gibson

May’s brother. Older than May by some years, Billy has a different father, and is born with a heart condition; as a baby he goes through multiple surgeries, and he’s sickly for much of… read analysis of Billy Gibson


Mum’s sister and May’s aunt, who takes in May and Billy after Mum commits suicide. While Aunty is loving and affectionate, she’s not a very reliable caretaker. She’s addicted to drinking and gambling… read analysis of Aunty


May’s father, a white man who abandons the family long before Mum’s suicide. At first, May remembers her father as an ideal parent who played with her patiently, taught her to fish, and… read analysis of Dad
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Alice / Old Mum

Mum’s mother, who frequently figures in the stories she tells May. Percy Gibson tells May that Alice left home as a young woman hoping to find meaning, just as May does. However, she… read analysis of Alice / Old Mum


A kind traveling salesman who visits the housing project where Mum, a young girl, lives with her mother Alice. Alice longs for the beautiful pots and pans he’s peddling but doesn’t have the… read analysis of Samuel

The Man / The Rapist

A white man who rapes May while she’s walking along the beach near her house. This is a traumatic event, which informs May’s disillusionment with her childhood and her decision to leave home. May feels… read analysis of The Man / The Rapist

Joyce / The Old Woman

An elderly woman who finds May living on the street in Sydney and gives her a home. Joyce lives in a crowded urban neighborhood, nicknamed the Block, and populated mostly by people of Aboriginal descent… read analysis of Joyce / The Old Woman


Joyce’s grandson and May’s best friend while she lives in Sydney. Initially, Johnny wants May to be his girlfriend, but after she briskly rejects him they become good friends; May even says he… read analysis of Johnny


May’s coworker at Mr. Tzuilakis’s car wash, who is eventually deported. May becomes deeply attached to the gentle older man, even envisioning him as her father, showing her intense longing for a more… read analysis of Charlie


A Wiradjuri elder living in Lake Cowal and organizing protests of the mining company that wants to set up drilling operations there. May meets Issy when she arrives at the lake (the center of traditional… read analysis of Issy

Mr. Tzuilakis

May’s arrogant boss when she works at the car wash in Sydney, who helps the police deport Charlie, another employee who is an undocumented immigrant. The novel doesn’t divulge much about this character… read analysis of Mr. Tzuilakis

Uncle / Graham

An old man May meets while looking for her Gibson relatives in the mission outside Eubalong. Like Issy, Uncle is an Aboriginal elder who helps May gain more knowledge about her people by telling… read analysis of Uncle / Graham

Percy Gibson

Mum’s cousin, and the one relative May finds at the end of her journey. Living with his wife Dotty in a tidy suburban house and devoted to golf, Percy has moved away from his… read analysis of Percy Gibson
Minor Characters
A man who lives in the squat, or abandoned building, where May goes after leaving Aunty’s house. Sheepa is kind to May and provides her with food and a safe place to sleep, but he also introduces her to opium.
Aunty’s abusive boyfriend. Craig’s disruption of the equilibrium of Aunty’s house, and his eventual fistfight with Billy, provide the impetus for Billy’s flight from home. Craig is one of the novel’s many examples of brutal domestic violence, and shows the destabilizing effect such violence has on family relationships.
The Overdose Girl
A girl who overdoses and dies in Sheepa’s squat while May is living there. Shocked by this incident, May soon leaves the squat and hitchhikes to Sydney.
Betty –
An elderly woman living in the mission outside of Eubalong, who tells May where to find her Gibson relatives.
Betty’s daughter.
A man who gives May a ride from Sydney to Lake Cowal.
A kindly truck driver who gives May a ride from her Wollongong to Sydney.
Joyce’s daughter and Johnny’s father, a well-meaning woman who succumbs to drug addiction.
Billy’s friend.
Billy’s Father
Mum’s first partner, an Aboriginal man who leaves her just after Billy is born and later commits suicide.
Percy Gibson’s wife.