Swallow the Air


Tara June Winch

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Themes and Colors
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Substance Abuse Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Swallow the Air, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

The Power of Memory

Swallow the Air, a novel about an Aboriginal girl’s struggle to come to grips with her troubled childhood in the wake of her mother’s suicide, makes frequent gestures to memory and the role it plays in influencing characters’ actions. With its fragmentary style—the protagonist, May often narrates both happy and disturbing memories concurrently with present action, or as abrupt interjections to that action—the novel presents memory as both guiding and complicating May’s life. While…

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Aboriginal Identity

Swallow the Air’s protagonist, May Gibson, is a descendant of the Wiradjuri Aboriginals, who have lived in Australia for millennia. However, several centuries of colonial rule has attacked and suppressed Aboriginal culture, which means that May’s heritage is largely a mystery to her. For May, the allure of traditional Aboriginal culture contrasts starkly with the marginalization of Aborigines by the dominant Anglo-Australian society. To cope with her disheartening reality, May dreams of an…

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Swallow the Air follows Aboriginal protagonist May Gibson as she searches for a sense of belonging after her mother commits suicide. As the novel progresses, May travels from the small town where she grew up to inner-city Sydney and finally rural areas where her tribe, the Wiradjuri, once lived. In every place she visits, she describes the lives of poor members of minority groups living on the margins of Australian society, people who are systematically…

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In Swallow the Air, families are usually unreliable and often violent. At the outset, they seem to be causes of distress rather than sources of strength. In fact, May’s dissatisfaction with Mum and Dad, who have abandoned her, and Aunty, who is an imperfect caretaker, drives her to leave home. May’s growing fascination with and long search for her Aboriginal tribe reflects a poignant desire to be situated in a family…

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Substance Abuse

Swallow the Air is rife with examples of substance abuse. Most of the adults who are supposed to take care of May and Billy fall prey to drugs or alcohol, and as the children grow up, they too seem at risk of derailing their lives by using drugs. The novel does not shy away from portraying the ruinous effects of addiction, which causes not only overdose deaths but psychological crises and violence within families. At…

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