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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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

Eyrie – Tim Winton

How can something that echoes so much pain, bring so much pleasure? A delicate elegance is at the heart of Tim Winton’s first novel in 5 years. This is very much a novel in the shade of Western Australia; that state, isolated, rich, with endless land, the new quarry of Asia. And then there is this port of Fremantle; like WA, the little brother of the eastern states, in the shadow of Perth, that city of glass and the river. Here is Tom Keely, a character of warmth and flaws. He can not fall any further: marriage, profession, and family all scattered and a deep dark stain on the floor.

The simple prose, evocative and peaceful, while haunting, is pure Winton. He is a mere writer of poetic prose: no one does pain and suffering like Winton. Tom’s sister is out saving Europe, the global financial crisis is yet to be born. His mother, one of the most compelling female characters in any novel, Doris, saves those that the system doesn’t need to or want to save. This is the novel: humans do posses a deep desire to protect, strive to save those that are locked out by birth, gender, skin colour, religion or lack there of. Tom echoes this family tradition. His natural world, the environment, ignored, capitalised in the latest mining boom is what he wants to save.

Sometimes Australians look back with longing; to a different time, believing that the time is somehow better, back in the day. Whether that is Abbott’s perverse and recycled 1950’s vision, or those now looking back upon the 1970’s as time of freedom, of a cultural rebirth, of big ideas and big changes. Just as the 1950’s could as easily be associated with stability and wealth, as with racism and social conflict, Winton’s Blackboy Crescent is nothing like the 1970’s of women’s liberation, free university, the growth of distinct Australian film and literature. It is violent, male dominated, a place desperate, as much hope, there is as much pain and suffering. The images that Winton draws together in cinematic beauty is one of Tom’s father walking to the house on the hill, the porch light on and the sounds of violence making the dark night even darker. Ned Keely, a romantic hero, who steps in when others turn their backs plants the seed for all the Keely’s desire to save those that are lost, unable to be protected.

The family of the violent drunk comes back to Tom when is at his lowest, perched upon the ugly Mirador. Without any self preservation Tom befriends Gemma’s grandson, Kai. These simple and stunning moments show how important male role models are. Gemma has lived a life opposite to that of Tom; uneducated, a cycle of poverty born in the grand ideals of a social safety net. For all the opportunities of the 1970’s, Gemma, once the beauty of Blackboy Crescent, finds herself a 40 something grandmother, mother of a daughter in jail. This is a constant symbol; for all the riches of WA, men still have to sleep in bus shelters, women are still living in fear of male violence. For all the education, people remain unemployed, under-employed. A society divided by post code.

In this, it could be said that this is Winton’s most political novel since Cloudstreet. But it is more; the story is tense and suspenseful, a study of man and woman; a gentle moving study of those two opposites. Beautiful; please Mr Winton don’t make us wait another five years.

The Riders

The Riders by Tim Winton, 1994.

This novel is a most cerebral experience. Scully is alone. In the Irish country side, with an ancient and worn house, Scully renovates a house on a hill overlooking a castle from another time. With every passing day, the house becomes a home. Scully is waiting for his wife and daughter.

The delicate language of Winton is here. But the fresh and lush language is not refined or precise. That is part of The Riders’ charm. There is a hectic pace and tension in this novel that contributed to redefining Winton after the success of Cloudstreet. The provincial focus of Perth, with its vernacular and Australianism is replaced by a worldliness that is unforgiving.

In the water there is always a stillness denied the rest of the world, a calm hard to recall standing here shitscared and shellshocked.

This is a novel of a father and daughter. Instead of an absent father, it is the mother figure that is a shadowy ghost. The father and son interplay is common in literature. Here it is about Scully and his daughter, Billie. She is a wildly brilliant character. Her parents travelling through Europe, she is the one constant. A figure of reason and beauty, she is more mature than Scully. The hope that comes with this pairing is because of Billie. She is of the world, so different to her scared father.

When Scully was in the nude he didn’t care. It was because he wasn’t beautiful. Only beautiful people cared.

This is a novel of place and belonging. For generations, Australians have travelled to Europe to find those ancestral links and the cultural heritage that was assumed absent in Australia. It is not lost on Winton that this sense of place and heritage is something all search for. Early in the novel he has Scully surveying the run down house in Ireland, noting that the house is older than his own country. But every where Scully is, he is an outsider. It is Jennifer who fits in, who becomes a part of the urban and cultured.

He wouldn’t sit back and go quietly…No, he was too tired, too scared and pissed off to go quietly.

Like so many before, Scully and his wife, Jennifer have come to Europe. It is everything Australia is not. They have spent time in Greece, Paris, London and now have settled the purchase on their home in Fremantle to live in rural Ireland. But for all the plans, Scully is left with his worldly daughter and a damp home. The haste of the chase across Europe is beautifully controlled with emotion and a vibrancy. Suddenly, you look up and you are on page 317.

The novel is one large sigh. Take it in, breath the characters given air by a master writer.