Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Australia, Publisher, Setting, Tim Winton

‘The Shepherd’s Hut’ by Tim Winton

The shepherd's hut by Tim Winton Australian edition

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.

The Shepherd's Hut UK edition
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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.

The Shepherds Hut US edition
/readingmattersblogdotcom1.files.wordpress.com/2018/05/shepherds-hut-us-edition.jpg”> US edition

[/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.

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.

Australia, Author, essays, memoir, Non-fiction, Tim Winton

‘Island Home: A Landscape Memoir’ by Tim Winton

Island Home UK edition
UK edition of Island Home

Non-fiction – hardcover; Picador; 256 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

In the UK, nature writing is experiencing a renaissance. Walk into any bookshop and you’ll find a table adorned with attractive non-fiction books (like this one, for instance). You almost can’t move without running into a book about the seasons, or the landscape, or a particular species of plant or animal, or how someone has re-found themselves after spending some time alone in the natural world.

Last year I asked a judge on the Wainwright Prize, which was created in the wake of this new enthusiasm for nature writing, why this was the case. Why were people writing books about nature, and why were people choosing to read them? Her theory went something like this: modern life is so busy and everyone is so plugged in — to computers, to social media, to the digital world in general — that they’ve lost touch with nature and this was one way of rediscovering it.

In Australia, I suspect it’s a bit different. Sure, Australians are just as “plugged in” as the Brits, but I’ve always felt that there was something about the larger-than-life landscapes (and the too-weird-to-be-true wildlife) that infiltrates the Australian psyche, almost as if natural history was in our DNA. Of course, I grew up in the countryside, so I would say that, but I do think Australians are aware of the natural environment and the impacts that humans have on it more so than their British counterparts.

Australian writer Tim Winton puts it more eloquently than me in his new book Island Home: A Landscape Memoir:

We are in a place where the material facts of life must still be contended with. There is so much more of it than us. We are forever battling to come to terms. The encounter between ourselves and the land is a live concern. Elsewhere this story is largely done and dusted, with nature in stumbling retreat, but here our life in nature remains an open question and how we answer it will define not just our culture and politics but our very survival.

10 deeply personal essays

The book, which is made up of 10 essays, some of which have been published elsewhere (“The Island Seen and Felt” was first given as a talk at London’s Royal Academy in 2013, for instance), highlights Winton’s relationship to the land but also gives us a potted history of the environmental movement in Australia. Each deeply personal (and full of vivid imagery) essay is prefaced by a diary-like back story to explain how what follows came to be.

Perhaps my favourite essay (admittedly it’s hard to choose just one) is “The power of place” in which Winton explains his evolution as a writer (primarily of quintessential Australian novels, some of which are reviewed here).

From the get-go he says he always wanted to write about the landscape and the “music of the vernacular” around him, an idea that wasn’t always welcomed by city-based publishers who felt this would not go down well in places like Sydney or London. It seems so ludicrous now, given that it is these twin pillars that make Winton’s writing so unique, well-loved and, dare I say it, award-winning.

Times are a’changing

From this collection of essays it is clear that a lot of things have changed over the course of the past 30 or 40 years. Landscapes have been damaged and species lost as the march of suburbia has continued unabated; large areas of pristine wilderness have been ruined, or are under threat, thanks to mining, the construction of hydro-electric power schemes, and gas and oil exploration. Intensive agriculture has caused erosion, water pollution and soil salinity. I could go on, but I won’t.

It’s not all bad news though. As Winton points out, this ongoing destruction has also created a new awareness and a more positive attitude towards the environment. “Greenies”, once regarded as foolhardy lefties with nothing better to do with their time, have slowly become normalised — or at least the values they espouse have become “mainstreamed”. Winton explains this incredibly well in the essay entitled “The corner of his eye”:

In the 1980s “greenie” subculture began to broaden and become a social movement, though it was still fractious and hectic. With its unlikely national reach and surprising political consequences, Tasmania’s Franklin Dam blockade was evidence of how widely the thinking of those earlier prophetic figures had spread, and how potent it was when amplified by a new and more diverse generation of activists like Bob Brown. By the 1990s the erudition, discipline and strategic patience of advocacy groups meant that ideas once thought to be harmlessly eccentric were shaping the vernacular mood and framing public policy. And by the turn of the millennium, the status of a river, reef or forest could determine the outcome of an election.

He goes on to say that though the battle is not yet won, “few on the right are completely unchanged by this development in thinking”.

Island Home Australian edition
Australian edition

An impassioned plea for the future

Admittedly, I’m a sucker for this kind of thing (I have a degree in environmental planning and spent my early 20s full of youthful idealism trying to save the planet), so there was never any doubt that I was not going to love this book. But what I found most surprising was how much resonated even though the author lives on the west coast, which is vastly different to the kind of Australian landscape with which I’m familiar. But I rather suspect that Winton, who is about a decade older than me, has noticed more environmental change in his lifetime than most people on the more populous east coast have seen. That’s why everything he says here should make people sit up and take notice.

If nothing else, Island Home is an impassioned and eloquent plea to save what’s left before it’s gone forever. And yet, for a collection of essays that could be so potentially negative and downhearted, it brims with a kind of hopefulness and optimism for the future. I really loved it.

If there’s a failing of the book it is not the author’s but his publishers, who have not provided a table of contents or an index. Something to bear in mind for a reprint, perhaps?

For another take on this book, please see Susan’s review at A Life in Books.

This is my 38th book for #ReadingAustralia2016.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Tim Winton

‘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

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, Tim Winton

‘Eyrie’ by Tim Winton

Eyrie_UKedition

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 256 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

If you’ve ever spoken your mind, or stood up for something you believe in when it might have been easier — and safer — to keep quiet, you will find plenty to identify with in Tim Winton‘s Eyrie, which has just been published in the UK.

A tale about a burnt out man

In this extraordinary novel — Winton’s 11th — we meet Tom Keely, a middle-aged spokesman for an environmental campaign group, who has lost his high-flying, highly pressurised job for daring to speak the truth. He’s also lost his comfortable lifestyle, his lovely house and his marriage.

Now, holed up in a flat at the top of a grim high-rise residential tower overlooking Fremantle, he’s living like a recluse: not even his mother, a social justice lawyer, is allowed to visit.

Burnt out, broke and clearly ill, he spends his days drinking and his evening popping prescription medication. There is little joy or meaning in his life, but then he meets his neighbours — Gemma, a woman from his past, and her six-year-old grandson, Kai — and things become slightly more interesting — and dangerous.

Returning to life

Told in the third person but entirely from Keely’s point of view, the novel charts Keely’s slow return to the world he’s given up on. But as he endeavours to do the right thing by Gemma and Kai, he finds himself becoming immersed in a seedy world far removed from his middle-class upbringing.

Lurching from one uncomfortable incident to the next, his behaviour gets increasingly erratic — he makes offensive phone calls to his sister that he can’t remember making, he passes out, he gets dizzy, he vomits — so that by the novel’s end you’re wishing he’d do what his mother keeps telling him and seek some medical advice.

But Keely is a man who lives by his own set of rules and follows his own moral compass — and you can’t help but love him for it.

Richly layered read

Winton does lots of rather clever things with this novel to make it an exceedingly strong, muscular and richly layered read.

He never provides straightforward answers about Keely’s situation — how he lost his job, what happened with his wife, is he sick or simply a drug addict —  but provides a steady drip feed of clues, so that you can figure it out for yourself.

He makes Keely come from a family of “good Samaritans” and intertwines that past history with the present to highlight the legacy of what it is to help others less fortunate than yourself.

He then sets the story at the tail end of 2008 during the Global Financial Crisis — which left Australia unscathed — so that he can explore the underbelly of Australian society at a time of great economic prosperity.

And then he has Keely, a well-educated man who’s pretty much lost everything, living in a building that houses all kinds of people, including those who had nothing to lose in the first place, so that he can see what happens when a downwardly mobile man falls into that class — will he sink, swim or help the people around him?

A comic touch

Despite Eyrie tackling some weighty subjects — not least Australia’s class system, a subject that seems to preoccupy many of the country’s contemporary writers — it’s done with a lightness of touch and plenty of humour. (There’s some terrific pun-laden conversations between Keely and his mother throughout the story, for instance, as well as a rather outrageous hangover scene in the opening chapter which sets the mood for the rest of the book.)

In exploring what it is to be a good person and what it is to do the right thing — whether for yourself, your family, the people in your community or the environment — Winton shines a light on the way in which contemporary Australians live their lives.

Eyrie, which has recently been shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Award, is a sometimes exhilarating, often confronting and always thought-provoking read. I loved its intelligence and its clever set pieces tied together by a fast-paced narrative, but most of all I just loved being held in its sway. I’ve read it twice now — and when I finished it I wanted to turn back to the start and read it all over again. If that’s not the sign of a brilliant book, I don’t know what is.

An interview with the author

I was fortunate enough to interview Tim Winton in person on his recent promotional tour in the UK for Shiny New Books. You can read it here.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, Tim Winton

‘Breath’ by Tim Winton

Breath

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 247 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

You’ve got to hand it to Tim Winton for being able to pick a theme and really work it. In Breath, his eighth novel, he focuses on the concept of breath — and breathing — so that it infuses almost every page. But he does it so delicately you’re not even aware that it’s happening — a bit like breathing itself — until you put the book down and mull things over.

A gentle story

I read Breath over the course of a few cold winter days and found myself mesmirised by the gentle, occasionally heart-breaking, story that unfolds, of a boy growing up on the Western Australian coast in the 1970s. Bruce Pike, or “pikelet”, is an outsider — his parents are English immigrants — who has no friends and lacks confidence. The only time he is ever sure of himself is when he is swimming in the local river or surfing in the ocean.

But when he meets “Loonie”, the town’s wild child, everything changes. The pair aren’t exactly kindred spirits, but there’s a bond between them — mainly in the form of “deep diving and breath-holding against the clock”.

Looking for added excitement, they save their pennies and invest in “real surfboards” made out of “proper foam and fibreglass” which “were tokens of our arrival”.

I will always remember my first wave that morning. The smells of paraffin wax and brine and peppy scrub. The way the swell rose beneath me like a body drawing in air. How the wave drew me forward and I sprang to my feet, skating with the wind of momentum in my ears. I leant across the wall of upstanding water and the board came with me as though it was part of my body and mind. The blur of spray. The billion shards of light. I remember the solitary watching figure on the beach and the flash of Loonie’s smile as I flew by; I was intoxicated.

The solitary figure on the beach (as per the quote above) turns out to be the linchpin of this story. His name is Sando, he has a Kombi van, a red dog, a lovely house by the ocean and an American wife with a chip on her shoulder and a stroppy attitude to match. He is in his 30s (“that made him a genuinely old guy”) and, although the boys don’t immediately know it, he was once an international champion surfer.

Tests their courage

Over the course of a summer he hangs out with Pikelet and Loonie and tests their courage by taking them surfing in often dangerous and remote locations.

For the first time in his life Pikelet experiences exhilaration and finds something that he is exceptionally good at. But there are limits to his bravery — and it is finding that line between fear and stupidity that shapes his character.

It also makes him realise that perhaps the friendship he shares with Loonie is not really friendship at all.

He hurled himself at the world. You could never second-guess him and once he embarked on something there was no holding him back. Yet the same stuff you marvelled at could really wear you down. Some Mondays I was relieved to be back on the school bus.

An unexpected twist

I won’t spoil the plot, but about two-thirds of the way through Pikelet’s story takes an unexpected — and erotic — twist that I never saw coming. That’s despite the fact that the opening chapter, written from the perspective of a middle-aged Pikelet looking back on his formative years, lays the ground for what it is to come.

What appears to be a rather gentle coming-of-age story turns into quite a heart-hammering and confronting read, one that shocks and frightens in equal measure. Yet Winton never resorts to sensationalism or author trickery; he simply tells the tale of a teenage boy’s secret past in simple, straightforward prose — and it feels all the more compelling for it.

And I love how the narrative is so strongly tied to the ocean and all things aquatic; it almost reads like a loveletter to the sea.

Breath won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2009 and the Age Book of the Year Fiction Prize in 2008. It was shortlisted for Commonwealth Writers Prize (south-east Asia and south Pacific region) and Queensland Premiers Literary Awards 2008.

Author, Book review, Fiction, France, Greece, Ireland, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, Tim Winton

‘The Riders’ by Tim Winton

The-Riders-2

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.