Tim Winton’s last novel, “Eyrie,” was, like his most famous novel, “Cloudstreet,” a big-hearted, high-octane drama about family strife and solidarity. Its focal point was one broken and reclusive man and his struggle to fix himself, get out of his “seedy little eyrie” apartment, and face the world again.
“The Shepherd’s Hut,” Winton’s first novel in five years, plays out once more in the author’s western Australia and again focuses on a male protagonist’s efforts to start anew. Any prospect of family unity, or at the very least family relations, is quickly snuffed out in the opening pages when teenage tearaway Jaxie Clackton happens upon the dead body of his violent, rum-soaked father.
Realizing there is no longer anything, or anyone, to hold him back, Jaxie packs a rifle and water jug and flees his flyblown, one-pub town for his first taste of peace and freedom in the vast backcountry. “I’m not what I was,” he tells us. “All I am now is a fresh idea fanging north up the highway to where it’s hot and safe and secret.”
After days of solitary traveling and hunting, Jaxie comes across a fellow loner living in an old hut in rural wilderness. Fintan MacGillis is an Irish priest, possibly defrocked, maybe disgraced and, in Jaxie’s eyes, certainly “marooned.” He assures Jaxie that he is “a civilized fella” and that “this is refuge as much as exile.” The pair soon set aside their suspicions, agree to keep quiet about their pasts, and form an unlikely friendship. But when Jaxie unearths something he shouldn’t, he and Fintan find that they are not alone and that their lives are in danger.
Winton wraps up his tale with some heightened tension and visceral thrills. Far more gripping, though, is Jaxie’s full-bodied narrative voice, which is the driving force of the novel. As with compatriot Peter Carey, Winton is a master ventriloquist of Australian vernacular, and Jaxie’s rough-edged diction, warped grammar (“I’da shot,” “I was gunna,” “I would of et”) and scattershot slang consistently assail and beguile the reader from beginning to end.
Equally impressive is Winton’s depiction of place — whether bland wheat belt or barren salt lands, a prospector’s shack or a shepherd’s hut. With the roos and euros, mulga and kurrajongs — not to mention the durries and frangers — an entire other world comes vibrantly alive.
As a fighter, risk-taker, victim and survivor, Jaxie is a captivating hero. Despite all his hard knocks, he refuses to give up. “I shoulda kept savage,” he says, as his enemies close in. However, nonstop toughness would have proved wearying, and the sporadic glimpses we get of his tender side — his softening toward father figure Fintan, his memories of his long suffering mother, his plans to be reunited with his one true love — render him a wholly sympathetic character.
Winton has triumphed again. This is a terrifying, electrifying novel charged by a singular voice and expert storytelling.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The Shepherd's Hut
By: Tim Winton.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 267 pages, $26.