It is no secret that meeting Tim Winton was (and will remain forever) a highlight of 2019. More than fitting given that his work has been the soundtrack of my life for the last few months. I’ve been working backwards through his backcatalogue via audio book and have completed the following trio: Breathe (2008), Dirt Music (2001) and The Riders (1994).
Now because I only listen to audiobooks when driving or ironing, I have no notebook to hand, making detailed reviews impossible. However, during the discussion of his latest novel, The Shepherd’s Hut at his event in Edinburgh, it became apparent that certain themes and character traits are a constant in his writing. Let’s see what he said, and how they relate to his earlier works.
1) He starts with the landscape which provides “the terms of trade” for the novel. His characters are subject to the logic of the place. “A bit like the landscape shimmering in a Western“, the Australian ecosystem hints at (some of) what is coming whether that be in the burning saltflats (The Shepherd’s Hut), the surfing regions of Western Australia (Breath), or the hostile environment of a remote island off the coast of Kimberley (Dirt Music). The Riders is an exception in that it doesn’t play in Australia. Dare I say it is Winton’s odyssey novel in which his Australian protagonist relocates to Ireland and then wanders (with his young daughter) through Europe in search of a wife gone AWOL.
2) “Sometimes I felt myself at this little scumbag’s mercy“. He was talking about Jaxie, the teenage protagonist of The Shepherd’s Hut, whom he labelled a mysognistic rascist. “I was interested in the kid, but also appalled by him“, he said. I know the feeling, because Winton writes a fine line in unlikeable characters. Who did I dislike the most in my three summer reads? Now that is a hard question to answer! I think we have a draw; one male, one female. What is interesting is that I liked and understood both – until they crossed a line.
Scully is the male protagonist of The Riders, whose wife abandons him and his 6-year old daughter most cruelly. When he goes to meet them at the airport, only his daughter comes through the gates. His wife has disappeared without explanation. Cue Scully and daughter trekking through various European locations searching for his wife, trying to fathom what has happened. Disaster follows disaster. Increasingly desperate, increasing broke, Scully’s morals, standards, and common sense degrade as they must. But at what point do they become unforgivable? The turning point for me came when he refused to get the urgent medical treatment his daughter required. And yet, I understood. Begrudgingly, but I still retained a tiniest sliver of understanding. Needs must and all that.
Turning my judgment to Eva Sanderson in Breathe – judgment is the appropriate word – I have now decided that she is the most irredeemable. There was a moment when I was driving along the M8 to Edinburgh when I was really hoping that the novel wasn’t heading in the direction I suspected. It did. It was a yuk moment, and morally there was no turning back. OK, so she was a neglected wife, but there is no sanction for her corrupting the teenage Pikelet in the way she did. NONE. Now his scars may be invisible, but the narrative, which is his flashblack to his formative adolescence, leaves no doubt that the damage inflicted by Eva Sanderson was worse than that inflicted by her egomaniacal surf-instructor husband, Sando.
So what is it with Winton and his fascination for “scumbags”? “Life hangs on little moments” said Winton. “I could so easily have been him“, he said of Jaxie, explaining the empathy he undoubtedly feels for all his creations.
3) Bad breaks do not necessarily lead to the road to perdition, although it might be a close run thing. (Just ask Lu Fox whom Winton strands Robinson Crusoe like on a hostile island.) “I’m not a hopeful person by nature. I’m not an optimist. I believe that hope is a form of discipline. It is not an emotional thing,” said Winton. In some ways that’s the hard-won mindset of Winton’s characters in Dirt Music, my favourite of the three summer “reads”, and the one I’m most likely to revisit. (It’s competing with Eyrie as my favourite Winton to-date.) Everyone in this novel has their own demons and when Georgie Jutland and Lu Fox fall head over heels with each other, there isn’t a happy ending in sight. “When hope is alive, it breaks things” and that is what these lovers are about to do: existing relationships, their own disengagement, and possibly their own lousy track records. Dirt Music has one of the most moving endings I’ve encountered. (And yes, I must revisit to review properly.)
4) “To give the reader a genuine authentic experience, it has to be intense for the writer“. Well, I can only imagine what Winton puts himself through. I certainly experienced much: astonishment, frustration, anger, yuk moments, tears. Thankfully though, not the emotional traumas of his characters.
All quotes from Tim Winton at EIBF 10.8.2019.