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 May often wishes to escape her memories or avoid reckoning with them, by the end of the novel she’s able to move past the memories that trouble her and draw on positive memories to find strength and confidence for the future.
The constant interjection of past recollections into current action illustrates how memories play a key role in shaping the present. The narrative is often difficult to navigate due to May’s tendency of shifting back and forth between memories and current events without distinguishing between them. This technique attempts to replicate the slippery nature of consciousness, showing that memories aren’t just confined to the past. Instead, memories are always present, influencing May’s course of action. Even at climactic moments of trauma or decision, May often finds recourse in a memory. Early in the novel, a stranger pursues May down the beach and presumably rapes her. To escape from this trauma, May says that the rapist’s “popping buttons […] take me elsewhere,” to a happy memory of May popping bubble wrap with her brother, Billy.
Sometimes, memories prove traumatic and misguiding; in order to function and move on with her life, May has to learn to let them go. One day, May’s long-absent father sends her a postcard whose cavalier tone—“sorry it’s been a long time […] from Dad”—indicates, if anything, his irresponsible attitude towards fatherhood. However, because of her deep desire to have one functioning parent, May invents a loving father out of the few memories she has of him. Recalling vague instances of eating watermelon or repairing a bike together, May forgets her father’s abandonment and abuse and says, “he might as well have been right there.”
This selective memory spurs May to leave home in search of her father, only to run into him at a rodeo, eagerly cheering an appallingly brutal wrestling match. When she finally sees her father, she’s struck by his “hand like a claw […] full of engorged veins,” and finally remembers that he is not the parent she “made myself imagine” but in fact “the monster I’d tried to hide.” Abruptly, May recollects the entirety of his character, remembering that after Dad fixed her bike he went inside and attacked her Mum with the very tools he’d just used. Leaving the rodeo without acknowledging her father, May says that “only when I remembered, could I finally forget.” In this case, clinging to bits and pieces of old memories of her father is detrimental and misleading. By confronting the truth about her father, May is able to let her memories go, and consequently gain clarity and resolution.
Although memories can be misleading or painful, memory also emerges as a grounding and empowering force by the end of the novel. By constantly retelling and insisting that her children remember important Aboriginal myths, May’s mother instills a reverence for memory and asserts that a conscious effort to remember can preserve important tribal knowledge that is in danger of disappearing. This teaches May that it’s “all right not to forget.”
At the novel’s end, May returns to Aunty’s house only to find her aunt sobbing and Billy distressed, because the family is facing imminent eviction. Sitting at the kitchen table, which is layered with different tablecloths, May remembers that throughout her childhood, whenever Aunty wanted to do something special she bought a new tablecloth. May, Mum, and Billy would always come over to admire the new purchase and share dinner. May suggests that they shop for a new tablecloth now, and Aunty immediately revives at the prospect, exclaiming that she can’t be evicted “with a tablecloth to wear in!” In this case, shared memories facilitate May’s reunion with the family she left at the beginning of the novel. For May, the memory about tablecloths creates a sense of continuity with her mother and allows May to overcome feelings of separation and loss. Most importantly, the memory allows the family to move into the future with renewed confidence, even though they’re facing more challenges than ever.
Always present in the novel’s non-chronological narrative, memory is neither an unequivocally positive nor negative force. At times, reliance on memory proves a hindrance to May, leading her on misguided quests. However, drawing on memories—particularly positive ones—also allows her to face an uncertain future with equanimity and courage.
The Power of Memory ThemeTracker
The Power of Memory Quotes in Swallow the Air
I thought about Mum’s pain being freed from her wrists, leaving her body, or what was left […] And I knew it was all right not to forget.
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.
I didn’t see the color that everyone else saw, some saw different shades—black, and brown, white. I saw me, May Gibson with one eye a little bigger than the other. I felt Aboriginal because Mum had made me proud to be […] but when Mum left, I stopped being Aboriginal.
Mum’s stories would always come back to this place, to the lake, where all Wiradjuri would stop to drink. Footprints of your ancestors, she’d say, one day I’ll take you there.
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.