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.
[/caption]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 largely keeps it switched off to protect the battery life but also to 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 really 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 those are not met.