the shepherd’s hut
Tim Winton, Hamish Hamilton, 2018, ISBN 978 0 14378 611 5, 267pp
Tim Winton is such a well-known Australian author of novels, children’s books as well as non-fiction that I am ashamed to admit that until ”the shepherd’s hut” (the lower case of the title is intentional) I had read none of his work. I cannot quite account for this; Winton has won the Miles Franklin Award four times, so he should be on anyone’s list to read. But there you go; we are all capricious creatures and there is often no accounting for the things we do nor for the things that we do not.
I was in Moruya Books a short while ago, indulging myself in an orgy of leafing through Janice’s stock before making the inevitable investments, when she approached me and said, “have you read ‘the shepherd’s hut’ by Tim Winton?” When I said that I had not she pressed a copy into my hand and encouraged me to read it. It is not often that a bookseller lends you a book, so I was already primed to expect something spectacular. I was not disappointed. The only faults I could find with this book are that it only took me two evenings to read and that it finished. Although there are really only two characters in the book it was, as the tabloid press might say, a page turner.
I gather that many of Winton’s books are set in Western Australia and this one follows that trend. It’s a novel about a boy, Jaxie Clackton, who is running away. It starts:
“The day me old life ended I sat up under the grandstand nursing me bung eye and hating old Wankbag till the sun went down. Mum always went crook when I called him that behind his back, Captain Wankbag.”
It took me three pages or so to get used to Winton’s Australian vernacular. It took me a little longer to put the book down for a moment and wonder how he gets inside the mind of a 15-year-old boy whose mother has died of cancer and whose relationship with his abusive father has left him desperately searching for love. Winton manages to describe the confused mind of a teenager who has lost his mother and his abusive father. In the background is Jaxie’s love, or at least longing, for his cousin Lee from whom he has been separated. The story proper begins with Jaxie returning home to find that his father has been killed as he tried to fix his car. As Jaxie observes pithily "the old turd was cactus.” There is nothing to keep Jaxie from grabbing a few provisions … a water-bottle, his binoculars, a rifle and a knife … and heading off into the bush. He doesn’t know where he’s going but he’s going there for Lee. She’s in Magnet, wherever that may be.
Jaxie is a good tracker, he learnt at least something from his father, and Winton has a painterly way of describing the Australian outback. For the first hundred pages there is only Jaxie, the outback and, eventually, the sight of the other main character. In a way, nothing happens as Jaxie wanders through the bush. Yet Winton holds you with prose that is lyrical and sparse and, often, sublime; there are no surplus words here, nothing to get in the way of the narrative. Halfway through the book we meet, or at least Jaxie meets, Fintan MacGillis. Fintan MacGillis is the key to Jaxie’s coming of age. As Jaxie makes his way through the outback he comes upon a salt plain and nearby he sees a hut. With his life-experience, Jaxie’s instinct is to trust no one. He needs water, but he does not want to be seen. He waits … and falls asleep. “I woke up with something at me, poking, digging.” Fintan, of course, knew he was being watched and, with the patience of an older man, just waited.
We’re not told exactly why Fintan is living in a hut in the middle of nowhere. He is supplied by infrequent and unpredictable visits from someone. We know that he is or was a priest and that he has been banished or has banished himself. Jaxie draws that obvious, but apparently wrong, conclusion. Fintan is nothing if not patient with the often illogical and inherently mistrustful actions of Jaxie. But Jaxie needs to keep moving; he needs to be somewhere other than where he is. I read one review of Winton’s work that suggested that the resolutions to his novels tend to be hollow or clichéd. I suppose that if there were a criticism to be made of the structure of the plot, then it is that its violent ending is a somehow contrived. This does mean that the ending is not a satisfactory one but rather that it could have been more fully developed. Having said that the book remains a great read for its language, for the narrative and for its story.
This is a book that one could read a second time, almost certainly finding something that one had missed the first time around. It is, therefore, a shame that I have to give it back so someone else can enjoy it. You would enjoy it too.