Fiction – hardcover; Penguin Australia; 270 pages; 2018.
I’m very much a late convert to Tim Winton, arguably one of Australian literature’s better-known exports, having only read a handful of his novels since 2011.
The Shepherd’s Hut, his 12th novel, was published earlier this year and it’s pretty much quintessential Winton: heavily focussed on landscape and place and centred on a young (male) character coming to terms with adulthood.
When the book opens, we meet Jaxie Clackton, an adolescent behind the wheel of a car, heading north on the highway. He’s fleeing something, but we’re not sure what, and we know he’s got a box of shells and a .410 shotgun.
For the first time in my life I know what I want and I have what it takes to get me there. If you never experienced that I feel sorry for you. But it wasn’t always like this. I have been through fire to get here. I seen things and done things and had shit done to me you couldn’t barely credit. So be happy for me. And for fucksake don’t get in my way.
The narrative then spools back to the start of Jaxie’s story — “the day the old life ended” — and we are suddenly emerged in a world of toxic masculinity. We learn that Jaxie’s mother has recently died and his father, a drunk and a bully, beats him mercilessly.
Coming home late one day, he finds his father pinned under the car he’s been repairing; most likely he has been crushed to death. This, Jaxie thinks, is an opportunity too good to miss. He packs a bag, grabs a gun and some ammunition, and leaves home, free at last.
From there on in, we follow Jaxie’s adventure north, all of it on foot, through wild bush, scrub and salt lands, fending for himself, shooting kangaroos for meat and always keeping an eye out for life-sustaining water. He has a mobile phone with him, but he largely keeps it switched off to protect the battery life and ensure the authorities can’t track him down and pin his father’s death on him.
It’s a fraught, taut and dangerous journey and the only thing propelling him along is the urgent desire to be reunited with his girlfriend, Lee, who lives somewhere up north.
The plan only goes awry when Jaxie, desperate for food and water, stumbles upon the shepherd’s hut of the title and meets the strange man who lives in it. Suddenly, there’s a new dilemma: should he let his guard down and accept the man’s friendship, or keep moving on, possibly to die alone in the harsh terrain?
Vividly detailed novel
As ever with Winton’s work, place is central to the story and his detailed descriptions of the landscape transform Jaxie’s tale into a vivid technicolour “movie of the mind”.
But what makes this novel such a compelling, often heart-hammering read is Jaxie’s working-class teenage voice. It’s urgent, angry, demanding, intimate, opinionated and often crude, but it’s what drives this novel forward and provides forensic insight into Jaxie’s tortured past and his current state of mind.
Winton does an exemplary job of depicting Jaxie’s interior world, that struggle between wanting to be seen as an adult who’s self-reliant, strong and trustworthy while coming to terms with strange new emotions: grief for the loss of his mother; relief at the death of his father; and first adolescent love with Lee ( “It’s a dangerous feeling getting noticed, being wanted. Getting seen deep and proper…”).
Perhaps the only thing that lets down the book is the rushed, semi-ambiguous ending, and the fact we never really find out the man in the shepherd’s hut real back story. But that’s by the by. I loved The Shepherd’s Hut in all its fierce, hard-as-nails glory. It’s a story that marries beauty with brutality, but it does something rather special too: it brings into sharp relief men’s emotional needs and what happens when they are unmet.
If you liked this, you might also like:
Goat Mountain by David Vann: the story of a family hunting trip that goes wrong, told through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy.
19 thoughts on “‘The Shepherd’s Hut’ by Tim Winton”
You’ve throughly whetted my appetite for this now, Kim, and I was already eager. I’m struck by that US jacket. Which do you think fits the novel best?
Thanks, Susan, I think you’ll find a lot to admire in this novel.
As for the most appropriate cover, I think it’s the UK, edition, but the one I like best is the American one. The Australian one is puzzling because Jaxie is in a car for all of about half a chapter, so why they’ve chosen a car speeding through the desert is a bit beyond me. It’s a great aerial image but not sure it really reflects the book’s content.
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Great review and great last line! The survival aspect of this book really appeals to me.
The survival aspect is really key to the story, Naomi, which makes it quite a thrilling read. There’s a lot of suspense in the novel, which is probably why it’s such a page turner.
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Sold! I’ve been waiting to see someone review this before I bought it and now I can go ahead. I like Winton, but not all of his work.
I haven’t read enough of his work to come across a clunker yet, though I must admit I thought Dirt Music was bonkers and didn’t much like the latter half of it.
As I’ve just said elsewhere, by weird coincidence Tony at Tony’s Book World has also just reviewed this Winton, see https://anokatony.wordpress.com/2018/07/15/the-shepherds-hut-by-tim-winton-a-missed-opportunity/
What a contrast, eh?
Ah, yes, I follow Tony’s blog and have just had his review land in my inbox. I take his point, but I’m not sure you can take marks off a review because the author didn’t write the story you wanted them to write 😉
There you go, I didn’t know Winton was an expert. It hadn’t occurred to me he was distributed outside Australia – contributes to our bronzed Aussie surfer image no doubt. I approach Winton warily, the whole boys growing up thing over and over. I’m planning to read/review Eyrie in the next couple of weeks and I might let this one slide for a while.
It was a British publicist who got me reading him back in 2011. The Brits love Winton. I hope you enjoy Eyrie. It does break out of the boy growing up mould and you’ll probably recognise the setting much more than I did (I’d never been to Fremantle when I read this book; I’ve been twice now.)
I’ve never read any Tim Winton, but the marriage of beauty and brutality you mention here really appeals to me. For some reason, I was reminded of Evie Wyld’s All the Birds Singing as I was reading your review – possibly because of the setting, but also the mood/tone of the book. Have you read it, Kim?
Apologies, Jacqui, only just seen your comment. (I had a bit of a crazy week this week and basically didn’t open my laptop.) I haven’t read All the Birds Singing. It’s in my TBR, but then I got completely turned off when it won the Miles Franklin a few years back cos I think that award should have gone to an author based in Australia; not someone who has an Australian connection but lives and works in the UK where the support network for writers is much larger (and richer). I will read it eventually….but need to let a bit more time pass I think. If you’ve not read Winton before this is probably a good a place as any to start…
Oh, no worries at all, Kim. We all have those weeks every now and again! I wondered if that might be the case with All the BIrds as I vaguely recall there being some controversy over the award. That’s entirely understandable.
Thanks for the advice about Tim Winton. He’s been on my radar fort a while, but I’ve yet to try him. One day, I hope. 🙂
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