Yes, I know I’m supposed to be concentrating on my 15 Books of Summer, but as each of these three books popped through the letterbox, they demanded to be read immediately. I was in no mood to argue.
A few people have mentioned that they’ve cooled towards Ian McEwan of late. The same thing happened to me over a decade ago. But the mention of my favourite colour in the title of a stand-alone short story, costing only £1.99, tempted me to give him another try. I found it full of the wicked wit I so enjoyed in his much-maligned Booker prize-winning Amsterdam. It’s a tale of a life-long friendship polluted by writerly envy. The only thing is that the highly successful writer, Jocelyn Tarbet, has no idea that his barely-publishable friend, Parker Sparrow, is in any way resentful. Which leaves him wide-open and defenceless when Sparrow decides it is time that their roles were reversed. No doubt about it Sparrow is a calculating, conniving so-and-so, and the execution of his cunning plan flawless. It makes for delicious reading with a slightly sour aftertaste. My conscience is telling me that I really shouldn’t have devoured the injustice done to Tarbet with such relish.
While thoroughly enjoyable, My Purple Scented Novel is not enough for McEwan to reclaim his place on my completist reading list. Conversely though, Tim Winton’s The Shepherd’s Hut, has convinced me that’s exactly what is to happen with his name. My first outing with him was with Eyrie. It promptly became my 2015 Book of the Year. I have since read his breakthrough novel, Cloudstreet, and now need to up my pace, if I am to read Breath, before watching the recently released film.
The Shepherd’s Hut is classic Winton, with its focus on males having a hard time in a harsh but inspiring landscape. Written in prose that pays both poetic homage to the land while reflecting the raw realities of human experience, it is an intoxicating mix, and one that keeps me glued to the pages.
Jaxie Clackton is 15 years old, dragged up by his violent and abusive father in a small Australian town. When his mother dies of cancer, Jaxie has to face the brunt of it. Of course, it shapes him. He becomes a foul-mouthed bully, “a bull looking for a china shop”. While he’s not entirely likeable, it is still it’s time to root for him when fate intervenes, and his father becomes victim to a fatal accident. Knowing that he will be blamed for his father’s death (because everyone knows he has good reason to kill him) Jaxie decides to run away to make a new start with his girlfriend. Trouble is he has to traverse the Australian saltlands to reach her.
So begins his odyssey in a stolen car during which the grit in Jaxie’s character reveals itself. There’s no lack of courage and determination, though perhaps his survival skills are not what they could be. Still he’s resilient, observant and intelligent. Mostly capable of working things out how best to hunt the meagre provisions available to him. Though perhaps not quite as clever as he thinks he is, and too confident of his physical stamina in this brutal, arid landscape. (The stolen car soon runs out of gas.) It’s just as well he stumbles across the eponymous shepherd’s hut.
The shepherd in this case is a defrocked Catholic priest, Fintan MacGillis, who has been banished to the outback. Provisions are delivered every six months, although MacGillis is uncertain how long the arrangement will last. He has, therefore, in the intervening years, developed tactics and strategies for providing for himself. Jaxie learns much from him. The hardest lesson for the damaged boy, however, is to learn how to trust, despite MacGillis never showing anything but kindness (although there is an underlying tension due to the undefined nature of MacGillies’s past misdeeds.)
Jaxie’s stay with the ex-priest is prolonged, even though they both know he cannot stay forever. A friendship of sorts develops through their shared routine and mutual appreciation of the landscape. Confidences are gradually exchanged. There is no sentimentality in this. Their conversations remain blokeish, the ofttime rawness betraying their respective vulnerabilities. And as Jaxie’s becomes more aware of his inner person, his outer senses are fine tuned by the pervading silence of the saltlands. He hears a low buzzing noise. A noise that should not be there ….
Let’s just say that curiosity kills the cat. What ensues proves that there are no safe places. The shocking ending is the time of test when Jaxie, the boy, needs to step up into manhood. In my view he fails. Jaxie might think he now knows himself, but I’m not so sure. The odyssey across the arid saltlands of his psychology is not yet complete.
Dear Tim, seeing as you broke my heart by touring Scotland in the week I was not there, would you please write a sequel for me? 😉
Now if I was excited at the prospect of a new Winton, I was positively hyperventilating at the thought of a newly translated W F Hermans novella. (And novella is it, despite the claims of the book cover.) Taking. my cue from other bloggers, I am currently compiling my 100 book capsule library. It’s proving difficult, but the first book on the list is a no brainer. I have decided that Hermans’s The Darkroom of Damocles is my favourite novel of all time. Hermans was a prolific writer, but pitifully little of his oeuvre has been translated into English (due apparently to the writer’s unwillingness.) Let’s hope that the publication of An Untouched House by Pushkin Press is the herald of a future feast to come.
Translated from Dutch by David Colmer, An Untouched House takes us to the Eastern Europe during the end days of World War II. The unnamed Dutch protagonist is fighting with a group of partisans. In the midst of battle, his commander sends him on a search for booby traps. When he finds a huge house, abandoned by its occupants, yet otherwise untouched by the war, full of creature comforts, he decides he’s going to stay. He discards his uniform and pretends to be the owner. When the Germans requisition the house, he puts up no resistance and manages to persuade the troops to leave him in peace in the rooms he now calls his own.
Is this desertion, collusion with the enemy or simple pragmatism? Hermans offers no comment, and at this point, there is a slightly comic feel in the absurdity of the story. Days of cohabitation with the troops pass by peacefully. But the mood darkens when the house owner reappears, and our “hero” reveals himself to be the antihero more commonly associated with Hermans’s work, one more aligned to the author’s view of there being only “a thin veneer covering the monstrousness of human nature”.
A monstrousness that the partisan is prepared to unleash without compunction in order to preserve his cushy number. And one which is then dwarfed by the sickening atrocities that take place as the Germans lose ground and the partisans overrun the house. What will our protagonist do? His days of rest are over, he now has to save himself from the firing squad.
He does so in a way that raises a wry smile. Because there is a suggestion that this is not the first time he has used the same ruse. Perhaps it is his way of surviving the war and who can blame him in the face of the amorality that surrounds him
The lack of moral judgment is key to Hermans’s work. The story does all the talking. There’s no honour in war. It’s devastating, and brings out the worst in mankind. There are those who try to preserve a common decency, a semblance of civilisation. The German commander, for example, prevents his men from rampaging through the house, and takes pride in maintaining his toilette.
Since joining the army […] I have shaved every day without fail at exactly half past six in the morning. […] That is what I understand by culture!’
Pitifully little, it is all he can do. Unfortunately it is insufficient to save him – and the house, which has done nothing but provide shelter – from the savagery of war. As Cees Nooteboom points out in the really informative afterword, Hermans believed in the malice of a sadistic universe. And that is exactly what is portrayed in the end pages of this novella. Not for the faint-hearted.