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