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 the same time, it’s clear that characters turn to substances in order to cope with their harsh lives; the novel contends that substance abuse is not a personal moral failing but the result of systemic poverty and oppression. In doing so, it delivers a deeply humanizing portrait of people who suffer from addiction, and an indictment of the society that drives them into it.
From the outset of the novel, there’s a clear link between the crushing poverty that most of the characters experience and the widespread phenomenon of substance abuse. Every week, Aunty engages in a contained form of gambling, entering a supermarket lottery to win a free shopping spree. When she finally wins, she’s elated at the prospect of finally having enough food and being able to feed Billy and May expensive things, like fresh turkey. In order to replicate this “high” and pay some of their other bills, Aunty turns to gambling at the local casino and then to drinking. Her addiction is thus a direct result of her feelings of shame and despair at being unable to provide for her family.
Similarly, May finds comfort to an opium-infused drink when she has to flee Aunty’s abusive boyfriend, Craig, and live in a squat, or abandoned building. For May, the opium high is a way to cope with her dangerous and uncertain new life. May and Aunty’s experiences both illustrate how characters turn to substances in situations of high pressure. In this way, addiction is a reflection of the circumstances around them, rather than a sign of moral inadequacy.
In its blunt but non-judgmental descriptions of addiction, Swallow the Air emphasizes the serious ramifications of substance abuse while simultaneously encouraging empathy towards its victims. The novel strips the topic of remote or complicated language. May describes her opium water as “little black dots” submersed in a cola bottle, and describes Billy “[unwrapping] the small package of foil” when she sees him using hard drugs for the first time. Framing substance abuse in terms of everyday actions, Winch makes it a disturbingly relatable prospect and thus prevents harsh judgment of the characters.
The novel is also unsparing in its descriptions of the casualties of drugs. When Billy and his friends use heroin, they have “sunken brown and yellow stones” for eyes. Later the same night, May stumbles upon a girl who has overdosed and died, “wilting in a puddle of peach-tiled water” in the bathroom. May watches Billy carry the girl’s body outside, saying that her brother “was vacant […] He did not wake.” This moment highlights not only the death toll of drug use, but the psychological toll it takes on the normally close relationship between brother and sister.
Swallow the Air is deeply critical of substance abuse, which it presents as dangerous not only to individuals but to the fabric of society. However, the novel also seeks to separate addiction from its victims, arguing that while drugs are terrible and destructive, those who use them are complex people facing harsh circumstances. In this way, the novel urges its readers to view those struggling with addiction with empathy, sensitivity, and respect.