Tom Keely, once a renowned environmental activist, has lost his job, his reputation and his self-esteem. He has retreated to his eyrie, a flat 10 floors up, with self-pity, booze and pills for company.
There’s only one direction in which to travel, and Winton’s plot is designed to bring the man back down to earth.
A chance encounter with his neighbour, a woman from his past and her grandson, is the catalyst for this process. There’s something about them that appeals to Keely’s better nature and he begins to reengage. BUT, given that he is a shambling wreck of a man with seriously diminished brain power, this may not be the best decision. Gemma was always bad news, even when they were kids, when she and her elder sister sought refuge in Tom’s home while her father was battering her mother. Things haven’t improved for her since those days. She finds herself caring for her grandson because her daughter is in jail for drug offences. The child’s father plays no active role in his son’s upbringing and besides, he’s lean, mean and it’s best he remains unaware of your existence.
In those far off days, Gemma was protected by Tom’s father, a preacher with a heart as big as his physique and a reputation of mythical proportions. Tom suddenly finds himself in competition with that reputation, wanting to prove himself worthy of the big man. The irony is that the man who has walked away, rejected and alienated those who are actually on his side, does not turn away from the person who presents the greatest threat.
The character study of Tom Keely, and his impaired judgment is fascinating and perturbing in equal measure; that of Gemma is laced with ambiguity. She, too, is damaged goods. The protection afforded in the past, temporary, and when the Keelys moved away, the chickens came home to roost. She has survived through developing a thick skin and strategies, not always beneficial to those around her. So, while she is in some instances a victim, in others she is a malign presence. It’s not always clear whether she is a vulnerable adult, genuinely needing Tom’s help, or a predator, capitalising on Tom’s vulnerabiliites to drag him into the vortex of her own maelstrom.
Eyrie is an intense story, vibrantly told. Winton is an author I’ve been meaning to read for years and I’m now annoyed that I’ve waited so long. (I started here because the novel is longlisted for both the 2014 IMPAC and the 2015 Folio Prize). Purists may not like the fact that his prose is choppy, not always using full sentences. I did. It reflects the way people think, and there’s a plethora of history contained in the 1st sentence. “So.” Descriptive passages are finely tuned, whether that to the sleazy after-effects of Tom’s binges or the beauty of the natural habitat of Western Australia.The ambiguities that pervade the text are masterful. Motifs of falling men recur throughout. Is Winton foreshadowing or teasing? At the start Tom has already fallen, even though he lives on high. The novel ends with him literally flat out on the pavement. Does this mean that the downward spiral continued until physical circumstances matched the metaphysical and nothing else remains? Or is the lowest physical point the moment of his greatest triumph and the start of better things to come? That is for each reader to decide.