“Who are we beyond our blood and our history?” It’s a question bestselling author Trent Dalton has asked himself, and others, for much of his life. He first lets his readers in on his thoughts in the multi-award-winning, internationally bestselling novel Boy Swallows Universe, which will be released as a Netflix series at the end of this year.

Published in 2018, it’s based on Dalton’s upbringing in Brisbane’s south-west in the 1980s. It follows 12-year-old Eli Bell, who grew up surrounded by violence, with a drug-addicted mother and heroin-dealing stepfather.

“[Eli] is constantly wondering, ‘If I come from this darkness, does that make me dark as well? If I have bad people who are raising me, does that make me bad?’” says Dalton.

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The journey of self-discovery is a common theme in Dalton’s work. His second novel, All Our Shimmering Skies, published in 2020, saw protagonist Molly Hook set out on an unforgettable road trip to end a curse that has plagued her family for decades.

His latest book, Lola in the Mirror, is an optimistic, lyrical tale set in Brisbane during the summer of 2023. It follows a 17-year-old girl and her mother who are on the run from the police, living in an orange 1987 Toyota Hiace van with four flat tyres in a scrapyard by the edge of Brisbane River. The young protagonist is trapped in the city’s underworld, but dreams of a new life as an internationally acclaimed artist.

“I felt like I could not ignore what was going on outside my front door,” Dalton tells Broadsheet. “We’ve got all these great things happening for Brisbane [like] the Olympics … but it’s important we keep seeing the stuff that is really happening out there.”

The research for Lola in the Mirror began in 2008, after someone Dalton loved dearly became homeless on the streets of Sydney. In an attempt to process what was happening, he challenged himself to sleep rough in Brisbane for a week.
“The exercise was flawed because I always had the love of a wife waiting for me and two young daughters at home,” he says.

“The best thing about [the experiment] was I walked into this homeless shelter called the 139 Club, now called 3rd Space.”

The shelter, in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, had been around for decades and, encouraged by one of its managers, Dalton returned over 15 years to speak with residents. These conversations resulted in stories told in his first non-fiction book, Love Stories. Lola in the Mirror is an evolution of that exploration. “Probing into people’s deeply complex histories, and not [just] seeing the thing that is on the surface is something I’ve been doing since my childhood.” Dalton says. “In my case [growing up], it was how I looked inside criminals who I was surrounded by and found the good in them.”

One of Dalton’s master strokes in Lola is his creation of a lovable, multifaceted main character who is without a name. “I thought, ‘Let’s make the lack of a name the very power of it, let’s go right through so that you don’t learn her name until the very last page.’’”

Lola in the Mirror, $32.99, published by Harper Collins Australia, is available in bookstores now.

Hear Trent Dalton speak about the new book at Sydney’s City Recital Hall on Tuesday October 10.