‘Dirt Music’ by Tim Winton

Dirt Music by Tim Winton

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 462 pages; 2008.

Dirt Music is Tim Winton‘s eighth novel. (He’s currently got 11 to his name.) It’s the one that’s been recommended to me most over the years, and somewhere along the line I’ve acquired three copies — but not read any of them. Until now.

The novel is what I’ve come to expect of Winton’s fare: beautiful prose, exquisite descriptions of landscapes, earthy all-too-real characters and a strong sense of place. But, if I’m being truly honest, I have to say the storyline is completely bonkers — and the narrative gets increasingly strange after the midway point. I still can’t make up my mind as to whether I liked it or not.

The story is essentially about two damaged people who begin a “forbidden” relationship before one of them runs away and hides out on a remote and uninhabited tropical island, where he goes slightly crazy. In the meantime, a search party, with nefarious intentions, sets out to find him. It’s a bit like marriage between an Australian Heart of Darkness and The Swiss Family Robinson, perhaps with a smidgen of Mad Max thrown in for good measure. A strange combination, right?

An unconventional romance

Initially the story begins as an unconventional romance between two residents in a lobster fishing village on the Western Australia coast. The fictional White Point is one of those places that has suddenly become awash with cash thanks to a lobster boom, but the people are rough and ready (read rednecks) and the community is dominated by men who solve disputes with their fists even if they live in the most lavish of houses. (Indeed, latent violence permeates everything, including the names of the fishing boats, which include Reaper, Raider, Slayer and Black Bitch.)

Living in this community is Georgie Jutland, a 40-something woman railing against her privileged middle-class background (her father is a QC and she’s had a private education but shunned university to become a nurse). She’s moved in with established fisherman Jim Buckridge, a widower with two sons, who rules the seas: he’s a kind of unelected “sheriff” who keeps the town’s wilder elements in check, often using the threat of violence to do so. But Georgie’s not exactly happy. She has no job and her relationship with her two stepsons is strained. She spends most of her time drinking vast quantities of vodka.

One day she spots a man on the beach, who appears to be poaching fish from lobster pots that don’t belong to him. His name is Luther Fox. She knows that she should tell Jim, but for whatever reason she keeps the news to herself. She secretly befriends Luther, who is grieving over the death of his brother, sister-in-law and their children in a tragic accident, and begins an affair with him.

Both Georgie and Luther are “lost”, damaged people, lonely and in need of solace, but their relationship — if you could even call it that — seems one-sided: Georgie needs him more than he needs her. You never really get a sense that Luther is truly attracted to Georgie — for him it’s more about distracting himself from loss, for replacing the music he no longer produces with something akin to love or, more specifically, lust. Perhaps it’s because he lives off-grid (he burnt all his identification papers following the funerals of his relatives), that he wants to remain invisible, even to the woman he’s sleeping with.

But remarkably, for a book that is supposedly about a love affair, there’s not much sex in it. And the story, which is divided into eight parts, changes tack so dramatically at the midway point that it seems churlish to describe it as anything other than a strange, sometimes terrifying, adventure story set in a dramatic landscape.

An undercurrent of music

As the title would suggest, music, specifically bluegrass, is perhaps the only consistent theme running through it. Dirt music is, according to Luther, “Anything you could play on a verandah. You know, without electricity”. (In Australia, a two-disc soundtrack for the novel was released to go with it, which you can purchase from the ABC Shop if you are that way inclined.)

Luther is passionate about music — he played in a band with his brother and his sister-in-law until their deaths, when he put his guitar away, no longer able to find joy in creating it. And so the absence of music becomes a metaphor for loss. It’s only when Luther is holed up on a tropical island that he finds himself tuning in to the sounds of nature once again.

All in all, I found Dirt Music a compelling, yet strangely inconsistent read. It’s bleak, sometimes achingly so, and the narrative seems cluttered and meandering, in need of a good edit. But as a portrait of a hostile landscape and of the sometimes desperate ways in which lonely people seek solace it’s exceedingly good.

This novel is published in the UK, US and Canada.

This is my 26th book for #ReadingAustralia2016

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23 thoughts on “‘Dirt Music’ by Tim Winton

  1. You have found my favorite Australian author. Breath, written in 2008, is probably my favorite. I was not overwhelmed by his most recent book – Eyrie. I always look forward to your posts.

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    • Hi Naomi. If you click on Tim’s name, highlighted in pink, at the top of this post you will see what other books of his I’ve reviewed. I’ve loved them all, especially his last one Eyrie, but perhaps because that spoke to me about a problem that had been worrying me for some time (Australia’s economic complacency in a world plunged into austerity — the global financial crisis bypassed Australia completely.) Most people will tell you to read Cloudstreet… I read it when it first came out (more than 20 years ago, hence not on this blog).

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  2. Dirt Music I loved, along with Cloudstreet. Breath was okay but didn’t love it. Eyrie I did like, but not love. So probably Dirt Music is my favourite, because of the strange elements, and way-outness you describe. I love it for the countryside and the adventure, and the brokenness of Luther Fox. The Turning (Winton’s collection of loosely inter-connected short stories which was filmed, each segment by a different director, and is worth looking up) is very good. But if you want even stranger Tim Winton than Dirt Music, try The Riders but be warned, it has gone down in history as having the most unsatisfactory ending (along with perhaps Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend!) (BTW, I have two copies of Dirt Music and two of Cloudstreet, unintentionally as well.)

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    • I loved Eyrie… I read it twice… but as I said to Naomi above it spoke to me about things I was interested in… I have a copy of the Turning but not read it. I saw the film (or series of short films) on a longhaul plane ride last year and loved it. I’ve also read The Riders. It was my first Winton and I was completely swept away by it. I actually thought the end was rather genius 😉

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  3. I read Island Home last week so your mention of Winton’s landscape descriptions chimed with me. In it he recounts his Australian publishers’ nervousness about the way in which his novels would go down in London and New York – he has quite a little rant about it. Presumably, given the publication of Breath and Island Home outside of Australia, they’ve changed their minds.

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    • I’ve been anxiously awaiting a copy of Island Home from the publisher, who promised me a copy months ago but it hasn’t arrived… I may have to bite the bullet and buy my own. I loved his earlier memoir Land’s Edge given to me by friends for my 30th birthday (a very very long time ago now) but it made me so homesick (I’d only been in the UK for 18 months at the time) that I can’t bear to ever re-read it, and I’m kind of worried that Island Home may have the same effect 😦

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      • Hmm… Torn between saying I’m sure you’d like it and helping to reduce you to tears, Kim! More of the same beautiful writing with added barbs aimed at the land clearers, etc.

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  4. Dirt Music is probably my favourite Winton, but Cloudstreet is the only one I’ve read twice (& I do love it) but there’s something about the lost souls and the romance and the landscape and the out of control ending that captured my heart in this one.

    Breath is one I plan to reread too one day, although I’m not sure I will need to revisit Eyrie :-/
    And don’t get me started on The Riders!

    The big adventure ending in Dirt Music is crying out for the movie blockbuster treatment! David Wenham as Fox of course.

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    • That’s good to hear… He’s a brilliant writer… I love the way he describes the landscape… place is so important in his novels

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  5. I’ve read 8 Wintons, and have liked them all, but some I like more than others. My favourites are Cloudstreet, The Turning, and Breath. I also liked In the winter dark and That eye the sky. I’m surprised that so many people recommended Dirt music. I did like it – the first half in particular – but as you say the second half did get rather far-fetched and I’m one who suspends disbelief pretty easily. The riders is the oddest of his that I’ve read. It’s not that it’s particularly bad but somehow it’s not him! I have a few on my TBR including Eyrie and his short stories Scission.

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  6. Oh dear, here’s a writer that’s been endlessly on my radar and yet never read! But this one I do have on my shelf and so it will be the first I read, but pleased to see all the great recommendations for the others and the memoirs. Oh, you have to risk the feeling of homesickness and likelihood of cleansing tears and read his latest memoir Kim, of course you will, it keeps that thing alive in you! I must try and read it this year!

    Fabulous, honest and insightful review.

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    • Thanks, Claire. I’m midway through Island Home at the moment… It’s making me sad for reasons other than homesickness. Actually, it’s making me a little angry too: that so much of the natural world is being destroyed. But I’m grateful that he articulates it all so well.

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      • Oh that’s great to hear you got hold of a copy, from what Susan had to say, I’m not surprised about the anger, that exploitation of land and natural resources seems to be intrinsic in so much of humanity – it comes out strongly in Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, which basically depicts that populations coming from outside have a tendency to exploitation and those native to a place struggle to protect, their identity, their way of life, their resources – it’s quite a thought-provoking piece.

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