Fiction – paperback; Picador; 377 pages; 2008.
Tim Winton is easily one of Australia’s most successful writers and yet I’ve only read one of his novels: the award-winning CloudStreet, which is pretty much compulsory reading if you are Australian. But earlier this month, having just joined my local library, I stumbled upon The Riders and decided to borrow it for a read. I did not expect to like it very much.
Boy, was I wrong. I bloody well couldn’t put this one down. I ate it up in a matter of days, and when I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about it. And now that I’ve long finished it — about a month ago now — I’m still thinking about it and wondering about the characters and trying to figure out why they made the decisions they made and whether any of them genuinely knew what they were doing. The lives of Fred Scully, his wife Jennifer and their daughter Billie will be forever etched in my memory.
The story is set in the late 1980s. The time period is important, because this was the era before mobile phone technology, before the internet, before cheap overseas landline calls. This was the time in which moving to the other side of the world had huge implications because communications were so difficult, complicated — and slow. Indeed, for much of this novel, the prime method of communication is the telegram: a succinct typewritten note delivered by hand.
The Scully’s are somewhat typical young Australians in that they have done the “compulsory” overseas stint, living and working in London, Paris and Greece. But a long weekend to Ireland, to fill in a few days before their final return home to Perth, changes their lives in unimaginable ways. Jennifer falls in love with a dilapidated 18th century peasant’s cottage (or “bothy”) in County Offaly and they pretty much buy it on the spot. The idea is that Fred, a kind of Jack of all trades who’s funded their travels by working on building sites and the like, will stay behind and make the cottage habitable. Meanwhile Jennifer, who is pregnant, will take Billie back home to Australia, pack up their belongings and sell the family home.
This is all back story, because when the novel opens, Fred (everyone, including his daughter, calls him Scully) is holed up in Ireland, doing the hard graft. Some 12 weeks into the project he gets word, via telegram, that Jennifer has sold the house and will be arriving in Shannon Airport on December 13. The excitement of her imminent arrival is palpable.
But on the day of their much awaited reunion only Billie steps off the plane. Jennifer is nowhere to be seen. There is no note and Billie, who is just a child, is mute, so traumatised by the situation that she refuses to speak.
Scully put the bucket of chips and the orange juice in front of his daughter and tried to think calmly. She’d said not a word since arriving and it compounded his anxiety. They sat across the white laminex table from one another, and to strangers they looked equally pasty and stunned. Billie ate her chips without expression.
“Can you tell me?”
Billie looked at the buffet bar, the procession of travellers with red plastic trays in hand.
“Billie, I’ve got a big problem. I don’t know what’s happening. I expected two people and only one came.”
Billie chewed, her eyes meeting his for a moment before she looked down at her juice.
“Did Mum get hurt or sick or something at the airport in London?”
Billie chewed. […]
“Was she on the plane with you from Perth? She must have been. She had to be. Billie, you gotta help me. Can you help me?”
Scully looked at her and knew whatever it was, it wasn’t small, not when you saw the terrible stillness of her face. She was a chatterbox, you couldn’t shut her up usually, and she could handle a small hitch, ride out a bit of complication with some showy bravery, but this.
This is the start of an amazing, sometimes terrifying and quite thrilling (for the reader) adventure, in which Scully drags Billie across Europe looking for his missing wife. And, as he does so, retracing the family’s steps though Greece, France and, later, Amsterdam, he goes through every emotion in the book — rage, heartache, misery, depression — all the while trying to keep things in check for Billie’s sake.
But the hardest part for Scully is coming to terms with the fact that Jennifer may not be the woman he thought she was. While he knows that he has married above his station — he’s a “working-class boofhead” after all, and she’s a university-educated bureaucrat — he begins to wonder if he’s been well and truly duped.
There’s a lot to like about this novel, but I particularly appreciated the strength of the father-daughter relationship and the unconditional love between Scully and Billie. And how nice to read about a father who takes his parental responsibilities seriously, when so many modern novels feature absent, abusive or incapable fathers.
Winton’s prose is also hugely evocative. He is especially good at describing places, such as the streets of Paris or the landscapes of rural Ireland — and on more than one occasion I couldn’t help but think the book would make a wonderful movie, because the narrative is so filmic.
Of course the narrative pacing, and Scully’s rising panic and poor decision-making, makes The Riders a real page turner. The whole time I had my heart in my throat, my pulse racing as I itched to discover what really happened to Jennifer and whether Scully would ever track her down. Without giving away the ending, let me say it wasn’t what I expected — and I’m still thinking about it weeks afterwards.
The Riders, which was first published in 1994, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1995.