The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton

What isn’t a Tim Winton novel in 21st Australia?

The tags of sentimentality and nostalgia have been used to describe his work since Cloudstreet despite nope of his novels since being set in the same time or place. There’s since vignettes of the WA landscape. The toxicity of the small country town, the hate and violence of a generation of men caught between the ANZAC myth and new reality of a plural Australia that – mostly- doesn’t take their shit anymore. It’s that generation between the Vietnam War era and the globalisation of Hawke and Keating in the 80’s. Instead of war or bar room brawls, it’s the kids that cop it. Or the wife. It’s something that has lingered in Winton’s writing since Breathe a violence of a culture marginalised. It’s as if one gender hasn’t evolved, taking the idolisation of ANZAC and the bronzed Aussie bush man and realising that the only power they may ever have is over their partner or kid.

The vernacular is still there. It’s not an Aussie twang, it’s not an ocker drawl. It’s a boy forced to grow up quickly, his mother suffering a long drawn out illness and his father, taken so suddenly, there’s a single minded response, it’s flight. As Jackson- Jaxie- bolts, he takes us into all the times it wasn’t flight, but there was only fight. In his desire not to be like his old man, he had become him. The school yard violence- the brutal simplicity that hacks back to the primitive is actually so true in 21st century Australia. It’s the lock out laws in response to random violence, it’s skyrocketing suspension numbers for violence. Hit a bully now and you are gone too, by the way.

The prose is electric, the capturing of Fintan simply poetic. Before you know it you are 200 pages in, then it happens. This is better than any film or TV series. This is a novelist who has aged to become even more poignant and powerful.

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Breathing Under Water (2016)

There is something special about how Australian’s approach surfing. Partly,almost by accident,  a lifestyle choice and then as a real choice of a career, a professionalism that has seen surfing as a part of who we are. Many nations surf, but none approach it with a balance of aggression and respect. The early chapters evoke something rare: a novel that does capture the harsh beauty of the Australian surfing culture. With echoes of Winton’s Lockie Leonard and Breath, and even Malcom Knox’s This Life, Sophie Hardcastle has written a new chapter in young adult literature in Australia. 

The twins, Grace and Ben, live and breath the ocean. Their parents both love and respect the power and grace of the ocean. The portrait of their small coastal town is idealic; the school, the home, the shops, the beach all elegantly drawn from the perspective of Grace. 

The final year of school is often a catalyst for change. Decisions about the future, decisions that we were all told will shape the next fifty years. The novel made me yearn for those simple days of my school days, my memory vividly recalling a selfish desire, a time of no responsibility, with risk taking, road trips and house parties getting out of hand. Sophie might as well have had lived on the coast with me. 

The idealic life is perfectly juxtaposed with the under current of the town. Is everyone simply preparing to exit? To the city, to life beyond the simple. Even Ben, seemingly with professional surfing laying before him as a serious career choice, is touched by the drug and alcohol culture that seems intertwined with the coast lifestyle. In this sense, the novel is both a novel for now and one for an Australia that has left us. An Australia that was less consumed with the dollar, a place immune from the corporate, where one lives or where you went to school didn’t matter.

The tragic events and their aftermath will hurt- I’ve seen this, I’ve lived this. I could pick out friends and their character’s. Nearly all had a little piece of me in them. It is more than a story of someone taken too soon and  

 someone left behind. Hardcastle captures the fall and rise with beautiful prose and deeply intelligent characterisation. How one moves on after falling apart has never been perfected with words. But this comes close. 

Island Home, Tim Winton

Moated in by oceans, sharing no borders…curious, oppressed by the relentless familiarity of their surroundings.

Tim Winton’s writing has always evoked the landscapes of Australia. It is itched into the skin of his characters, it is dripping from the dialogue. Every part of his writing feels as if it has come from the land, that it is of the land. Winton’s writes of the land as a religious experience. At no point does he fall into cliche; nostalgia is absent. It is a remarkable person who is able to look back, write and make every sentence fresh.

In his non-fiction writing, Winton’s poignant poetic phrases are no less powerful, provoking the inner workings of one of Australia’s most celebrated thinkers. Island Home is a rare piece of non-fiction for Winton. After reading this you will want to know more. He touches on his thoughts of the current fear and loathing political climate, he transcends environmental and green politics. I want to know his thoughts on Australia’s foreign policy; our place on the world stage; his view on what Australia might be like in 20/20.

Island Home travels across various parts of Winton’s life and career. The early days and his warm reflections of a childhood full of freedom and the bush and the sea is most profound. What might come across as self-indulgent by a less person (and writer) is instead evocative and stunning in its pure simplicity. His reflections on his time at WAIT are striking for their honesty. All the way through the land, the sea and that which grows from it, is celebrated. Yet, he never appears to be an expert or didactic. Winton should write more non-fiction, he should write in the first person more.

A piece of art about Australia by an Australian, when it is about the people or the land, is nearly always political. There’s a great fear of artists reaching beyond entertainment into political discourse. The land in Australia has always been political. It has always been about power. But it is the spiritual power that Winton is most concerned about; protecting the land is a spiritual act. It is not solely a political act. Winton’s portrait of the land reaches into the political. This passage from ‘Paying Respect’ was my favourite part of the book:

As a kid from a devout religious family I was always acutely aware of how skittish people could be about anything to do with the sacred. My neighbours and schoolmates did not exactly welcome expressions of spiritual devotion- that sort of thing made them very uncomfortable, even angry – and in this regards, despite two generations of multiculturalism, Australians haven’t changed much. We’re pretty good at maintaining a secular public space, and that’s worth celebrating, but we’re a bit tin-eared about matters of religion and anxious about using terms like ‘sacred’. This strikes me as a bit ironic, for we live on the most spiritually potent continent imaginable. But apart from family, the only thing sacred to most of us is our much-vaunted ‘way of life.’ And what is that but an unspecified mixture of political, financial and spatial liberties enjoyed in sunshine at the island’s margins? Not even the confected sanctification of Anzac Day can rival it. But the recent recommissioning and deliberate sacralization of the Gallipoli myth is telling, because it suggests a spiritual vacuum, a palpable absence at our core, as if deep down, ordinary folks want to submit to something grand and sublime. But Anzac has been coarsened by the politics of nostalgic regression. It’s close to becoming the sort of nationalist death cult we revile when it appears in others places or under a different flag, and I fail to see how such a false sense of the false sense of the scared nourishes the individual or the community, because the only thing it sustains is the security of those who send our young men and women to new wars, some of which have proven every bit as pointless and wasteful as the bungled adventure in the Dardanelles in 1915.

Island Home was a pure joy to read and experience. You will walk away intensely jealous. You will look at the land differently; you will look at yourself and your family and friends and notice how the land has shaped them. Take your time; enjoy it.

its’ palce on

A Guide To Berlin, Gail Jones

I have found Gail Jones to be a precise and heartfelt writer. Her last novel, the uniquely Sydney novel, Five Bells, was a joyous celebration of the city and its people. A Guide To Berlin is another unique exploration of one of the most mysterious and spellbinding cities of the world. 

Cass is an Australian in Berlin. By chance, when capturing one of celebrated writer Nabokov’s residences in Berlin, she meets Marco. He invites her along to meet like minded people. The group, from Japan, Italy and America float across empty apartments and spend time sharing their darkest and lightest memories.

Conversation turned to politics. It was a refined to consider social meanings, to acknowledge real urgencies and those not their own. Gino was still upset, he said, by the mass drowning of African refugees, a few months back, off the island of Lampedusa. Cass knew the figure: 366 lives lost and not one child under twelve who’d survived.

The speak-memories provide a deeply passionate look into the backgrounds of each person. As the Berlin winter turns everything white, then grey and finally black, each has been drawn to Berlin for different reasons. The visions of Berlin from each show the city for all its layers of death, creation and humanity. As a City, Berlin begins to embody each of them. More than any city there has been more inhumanity born in Berlin than any other. Yet, as seen with the groups love of Nabokov, there has been much created here that reflects the greatest of humanity. 

‘We are all shits, my friends. We are all literary snobs in this vicarious little room of our own, dilettantish, smug, hidden from the fucked-up world. We are enslaved to the folly and the whirlpool of our own obsessions.’

Class is a most interesting figure. In her mid 20s, she has escaped from Australia, found herself in London and now Berlin. A passionate, observational figure who notices things in the group, in the city  and in herself that no one else sees. Her observation of the others and the city are painful and heartfelt. The city is alive, the layers of war, creation, often connected to the train system and the markers of history.

Berlin in winter is an unforgiving place. It has been a place of known violence and of the greatest of humanity. In the group we see the same. As they separate, with the echoes of violence in their ears, having had their memories scarred, Cass turns her head away from city.

The White Earth, Andrew McGahan

There’s conflict in every direction in McGahan’s 2004 novel, The White Earth. This conflict, in places, contrived and superficial, is what makes and breaks the novel. It could be said that McGahan is even in conflict with himself. Having first read McGahan as an undergrad (the confronting Praise), he is at once literary and populist. His story telling here is didactic and in places condescending. 

“…There are a lot of bones around here- mostly they’d be black, not white, and you don’t see any memorials to them.”

William, as a central character is an interesting choice. From his backyard he watches the smoke, a fire. The motif of fire trickles through each of the characters and across the land. It becomes the agent of change for the many characters of The White Earth. And this is the problem with each death a relationship that may be interesting, is ended. We never learn of William’s relationship with his father. Even his physically present mother isn’t given depth or a voice. Instead it is the caricature of William’s uncle that shadows over every facet of the story. 

“This country will speak to you too, if you listen. The blacks say it flows into and through  your feet, and they’re right. But it’s not an Aboriginal thing. It’s not a white thing either. It’s a human thing. Not everyone has it. But I do. And you have it too.”

McGahan tries to do too much. There’s a back story that traces family ties back through to World War Two. While the prose is straight forward, there’s a number of confusing plot developments that are left without explanation while other obvious elements are painstakingly drawn out over many chapters. There’s much effort by McGahan to have John explain native title to his eight year nephew. Instead John comes across as a brain washing bigot. There’s no energy to the story; the constant fever of conflict, of the physical and spiritual tears the novel apart. I wanted to like this novel. But I didn’t. 

Mourn

It is hot. There’s no sea breeze reaching the field. The grass is dry and crackling under foot. The smell of aero guard and sun cream. The sound of the bowler grunting, the thud of the ball hitting the willow. A polite clap. Joyous slapping of arses after a wicket. A sport played by both genders, but being an Australian male playing means actually showing emotion. It does have a blokey underbelly. But I’ve seen men cry after a close final win. I’ve seen tough working class train drivers discuss the best way to make a curry with an opposition player with Indian heritage. I’ve seen upset bowlers kick the ground, growl at their team mates.

There is something about this sport. Non-contact, but violent. Seemingly simple, but intricate and sometimes haunted by tradition.

Each year I sit in the same seat at the Sydney Cricket Ground, this grand motif of the game. A bowl of green in the middle of our largest city. A smallish ground by Australian standards. So petite. The new shiny stands give away to the grand old stands. It is this that makes the game, the old and new, not competing but complementing each other. The celebrity, money and coverage couldn’t be without the tradition.

Why do some Australians like it so much? Is it that it has grand contradictions? Much like our history? Australia, the ancient land, invasion and disease and dispossession almost killing off the first Australians. The new world brought so much that still kills and hurts. But also, the rule of law, untenable freedoms. People have escaped war and poverty by coming here. Now we lock children away on island concentration camps. That’s just not cricket.

Some people say Australians are simple, uncultured. There is a simplicity to the game. A bat, a ball, somewhere not necessarily flat.

Some people say Australians are the wealthiest people on earth. There are innovators, scientists, brilliant writers and worldly thinkers. There is a complexity to the game. Subtlities, slights of hand, technique, an entire dictionary of words that surround it.

There is a routine and repetition that requires complete concentration. The ebb and flow of fielders walking in. The bowler back to their mark, repeat. The odds are this, one person against eleven. An individual-but-team sport.

I haven’t cried for a couple of years, but I have had to leave work early today after hearing the news. I am on the freeway behind a car doing 90. I am crying. But today, I’m not a pansy, or pussy. Today, it is more than a game.