Some writers tell tales of what people do. Tim Winton’s stories mine a deeper seam and play around with the notion of why people do the things they do. From poor Lester Lamb in Winton’s best-known work, Cloudstreet, forever seeking to atone for the accident that damaged his son, Fish; to the enigmatic, haunted Luther Fox in Dirt Music, desperately trying to find a way to let go of all that he is and just be, Winton’s characters are rarely one-dimensional or simplistic.
Never was this truer–or more appropriate, given the lack of characters for the vast majority of the novel–than with The Shepherd’s Hut, which tells the story of an unlikely hero, teenage Jaxie Clackton, and his encounter with a defrocked Irish priest in the middle of barren Western Australia.
Now there’s a proposition.
The story opens at full tilt, with Jaxie racing away from something in a stolen car. It takes the whole novel to reveal the full extent of what the something is. And given that we learn early on that Jaxie’s beloved mother is dead and his private name for his father is Captain Wankbag, it’s a fair guess that his life is already pretty lousy before we’ve even turned a page.
What carries this story at breakneck speed is the voice, told in first person, and man, what a voice. I once heard Winton say that he wrote this while working on something else because Jaxie’s voice came to him and wouldn’t let go, and that’s evident throughout. You can feel the urgency with which Jaxie screams onto every page, desperate to be heard.
The third main character in this relatively short novel (the hardback edition comes in at 265 pages and I’d guess it’s probably a little under 80,000 words) is the landscape itself. It’s something that Winton has in common with Cormac McCarthy (a writer with whom I think he shares a sensibility, that innate knowledge of people’s souls and hearts), the notion that where the action takes place is as important as what happens, the two feeding each other and creating the environment of the novel.
In all his books, Winton’s descriptions of Western Australia, his cherished homeland, are incredibly powerful and evocative. Here the bitumen roads, the salt lakes, the searing sun, the dirt, the bush, the kangaroos, the salmon gum trees, are all so real you can feel them, smell them, taste them. I’ve never been to Australia but I have the feeling that if someone was to drop me somewhere north of Perth I’d have a pretty good idea where I was, thanks to Tim Winton.
Jaxie’s not running aimlessly. His plan is to find his 15 year old cousin, Lee, a shaven-headed girl with one green eye and one grey one, and the only person Jaxie loves and who he feels understands him. Somewhere between the home he leaves behind and the town of Magnet, where he hopes to find her, Jaxie comes across the structure that gave the book its name. And as he says, ‘shit, there was someone moving around in there.’
That someone turns out to be Fintan MacGillis, a one-time priest with a dark past who, it transpires, is being allowed to live undisturbed in the outback; by whom or why is never fully revealed, but Fintan is clearly a man with a dangerous history.
Jaxie and Fintan start out wary of each other. Neither has expected this coming together. Slowly MacGillis’s approach to Jaxie draws the boy in, as if he’s taming a wild animal, which, in a way, he is. But just as that trust develops to the point where the pair are able to see past their situations and reveal their humanity, so they both become endangered, their guards down to whatever else this wild and inhospitable landscape delivers.
This novel shows itself in widescreen, feeling cinematic and blazing in high definition. I defy anyone reading this to put it down at any point and not have a memory of what they’ve just read play out like a movie in their mind. It’s a classic tale of an outsider seeking to make their world ok. And it’s an examination of man’s inhumanity to man amid a natural world that, when all is said and done, will always remain triumphant.
Tim Winton is one of the great living novelists. The Shepherd’s Hut is proof of that, a great book on so many levels. If you’ve read Winton before, this has all the familiar hallmarks but is also tighter, more urgent and visceral than some of his other writing. If you’ve not yet picked up a Tim Winton work, this is a hell of a place to start.
The Shepherd’s Hut is published by Picador and is available here.
Tim Winton has published over twenty books for adults and children, and his work has been translated into many different languages. Since his first novel, An Open Swimmer, won the Australian/Vogel Award in 1981, he has won the Miles Franklin Award four times (for Shallows, Cloudstreet, Dirt Music and Breath) and twice been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (for The Riders and Dirt Music). Active in the environmental movement, he is the Patron of the Australian Marine Conservation Society. He lives in Western Australia.
Reviewed by Andrew Leach
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