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 that is exempt from the flaws and struggles that characterize her actual relatives, while the anticlimactic end to this quest shows that such a family can’t exist in real life. However, by showing May returning to and embracing the relatives she left, the novel argues that even deeply flawed families can provide peace and fulfillment unavailable in other aspects of life.
Especially in her early life, May’s experience paints a picture of an unstable family that perpetuates cycles of violence and abandonment. May and Billy are born to different fathers, and both have abandoned them. At one point, May receives a postcard from her Dad apologizing halfheartedly that “it’s been a long time that you haven’t heard from your old man,” and saying that he “might send you some treasure.” Such a missive is a mockery of the serious obligations fatherhood entails. While Mum is loving and well-intentioned, her deteriorating mental health, culminating in suicide, prevents her from being an effective guardian. Mum’s sister Aunty takes in Billy and May, but she’s an alcoholic, and her boyfriend Craig abuses her and eventually attacks Billy as well. Billy feels betrayed by the fact that Aunty has allowed violence into their home rather than protecting her niece and nephew, and this drives him and eventually May to run away.
While the novel rarely discusses this explicitly, its many portraits of broken families reflect the damage inflicted by the Australian government’s policy of family separation, in which Aboriginal children (especially children of mixed-race heritage) were taken from their parents and raised in public institutions, in order to indoctrinate them with Anglo-Australian culture and values. Affecting many children of Mum’s generation, including some of her own siblings, this policy destroyed family structures and left its victims unable to form healthy, stable families of their own.
However, families—especially unconventional ones—can provide safety and strength in the midst of an otherwise unstable environment. While May can’t rely on her parents, she has an extremely close relationship with her brother, Billy. Remarking on their strong sense of unity, she says that “Billy and me were like shadows […] We’d move on the same tides.” When May is living on the streets of Sydney, a woman named Joyce takes her in and May assimilates into her family, an impoverished but loving clan that provides May with a model of family life unmarked by the violence she’s grown up with.
May’s disillusionment with both her biological parents and her adoptive one (Aunty) inspires her journey to the Wiradjuri lands, where she hopes she’ll find an intact tribal family that has escaped the ravages inflicted by the Australian government on most Aborigines. When it proves fruitless, this quest further emphasizes the tragic collapse of Aboriginal families under colonial rule. However, it also causes May to recommit to her existing, imperfect family. When she returns home, even though she still faces significant challenges, her renewed unity with Aunty and Billy gives her enough courage to face them.
By portraying families who love but can’t take care of each other, the novel highlights the effects of Anglo-Australian oppression on the character of Aboriginal families. Thus, the novel urges its readership to consider not just the behavior of individual families, but the extent to which that behavior is governed by political and cultural circumstances.
Family Quotes in Swallow the Air
Billy and me were like shadows; we could merge into the walls without being noticed. We’d move on the same tides; when we were laughing we couldn’t stop each other, when we were talking neither of us could get a word in, when we were fishing, being sad, or being silent, we were both empty cups.
My old man isn’t though; his family are from the First Fleet and everything. Rich folk they were, fancy folk from England.
A jawbone crunches under a slice of bare knuckles. Bloodied eyeballs throw blank expressions. Mouths fling spittle streamers about the dirt red ring. Frantic, finger-bitten punches claw tangled in the shiny skin.
I remembered now, when that anger face became his always face and the world ceased to be real, to be able to be understood, so I had left it behind. I couldn’t remember the endings to the memories of him. But here they were laid bare—the bones of him that I had hidden.
The screams must have been so deafening, the river of tears so overflowing that the current could only steal her. The flood breaking so high, that she had to leave us behind. We couldn’t swim either.
The sky showing the journey the waters make, the tracks, the beds balancing liquid from cloud to crevasse. Follow the leatherback turtle through tide, the waterbirds fly between currents. I knew I had to get out of the city, get out of the boxes they put you in.
There is a big missing hole between this place and the place you’re looking for. That place, that people, that something you’re looking for. It’s gone. It was taken away. We weren’t told, love; we weren’t allowed to be Aboriginal.
This land is belonging, all of it for all of us. This river is that ocean, these clouds are that lake, these tears are not only my own. They belong to the whales, to Joyce […] they belong to the spirits. To people I will never even know. I give them to my mother.
An excavator starts its smothering engine over the torrent of each barrel. Over the sun. Over the blue. And I wonder, if we stand here, if we stay, if they stop digging up Aunty’s backyard, stop digging up a mother’s memory, stop digging up our people, maybe then, we’ll all stop crying.