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Tim Winton, The shepherd’s hut (#BookReview)

November 27, 2019

Book coverTim Winton and Christos Tsiolkas have to be Australia’s foremost contemporary writers about men and boys, Tsiolkas doing for urban/surburban males what Winton does for small town/rural ones. Winton’s latest novel, The shepherd’s hut, continues his exploration of males in extremis. It’s strong, gritty, page-turning, and yet reflective too, which is not easy to pull-off.

The shepherd’s hut is the story of a teenage boy who goes on the run after finding his violent father dead, crushed under the car in the garage. He thinks he’ll be blamed, and he’s not hanging around to find out. With the exception of Lee who lives in Magnet – she’s symbolically and literally his magnet – he’s friendless, so it’s to Magnet that he heads, on foot across the Western Australian desert. And thus the adventure begins, except that the novel starts at the end of that adventure – or the beginning of the next adventure – take your pick. Here are the last few sentences of the opening two pages:

For the first time in me life I know what I want and I have what it takes to get me there. If you never experienced that I feel sorry for you.

But it wasn’t always like this. I been through fire to get here. I seen things and done things and had shit done to me you couldn’t barely credit. So be happy for me. And for fucksake don’t get in my way.

What an impressive opening. The tone, and thus the character, is defiant. There’s the hint of trials that have been confronted. There’s the in-your-face vernacular language. And there’s the sense of something ending and something else beginning. Where is this book going to go, we wonder, so we turn the page – and we find ourselves in the past, at the beginning, we suspect, of whatever it is that he has just come through.

Soon enough, we learn that our boy is Jaxie Clackton, that his mother had died not too long ago from cancer, and that he is living with his violent father. Jaxie himself is, not surprisingly, prone to bullying and violence himself, but, really, all he wants is peace:

all a person wants is feeling safe. Peace, that’s all I’m after.

Can this angry boy, can anyone who has grown up surrounded by violence, really remake themselves? That is the question.

The shepherd’s hut is, essentially, a road story, albeit one done on foot. Jaxie heads out into the wheatbelt, steering clear of the highway. The exposed, pared-back landscape provides the perfect backdrop for Jaxie’s emotions as he struggles to survive in the wheatbelt-mining-desert country in which he finds himself. It’s not easy to hide out there where “you stick out like a rat on a birthday cake”, let alone find food and water, but Jaxie has to survive, physically, mentally and spiritually, if he is to achieve his goal. Winton’s descriptions of Jaxie’s journey – the landscape, what he needs to do to sustain himself – are graphic and visceral.

Eventually, Jaxie finds another human being out there, exiled Irish priest Fintan MacGillis. Jaxie is naturally suspicious – given all he’s heard about “pedos” and “kiddy-fiddlers” – but gradually a bond, sometimes uneasy but nonetheless strong and mutually beneficial, forms between these two outsiders. Jaxie’s energy and passion provide a foil for Fintan’s wiser more experienced understanding of the world. There is a sort of biblical feeling to all this – a forty-days-in-the-desert vibe – as these two serve out their “exiles”.

There is a lot we are not told. Exactly why Fintan is there is never fully explained (but it’s not for kiddy-fiddling), and whether anyone is really after Jaxie is never confirmed. This information is not important to the story being told, which is … well, what is it about?

“I know what I am now” (Jaxie)

On the surface, it is about violence – particularly about domestic violence and its impact on those so abused, like our Jaxie. But, this is Winton, and while his novels chronicle social conditions, exposing society’s failings, his main interest tends to something deeper – call it biblical, theological, or spiritual. So, to focus on Jaxie, our protagonist, I’d argue that his time in the desert – both alone and then with Fintan – do result in some spiritual  growth for him. One of the motifs running through the book concerns goats – why? Well, we could read Jaxie as a scapegoat. Literally, and perhaps even symbolically. We know he’s on the run because he believes he’ll be blamed for his father’s death, but is it going too far to also read him, damaged young man that he is, as a scapegoat for the violence enacted by society? We can certainly read the outcast, somewhat flawed priest Fintan, who, significantly, lives in the titular shepherd’s hut, as his spiritual guide. Indeed, Fintan describes the landscape in which they find themselves as “penitential”.

In the novel’s opening two pages, Jaxie, on his way out of the desert, describes himself as having “hoofed it like a dirty goat all these weeks and months”, but, he says, “I’m no kind of beast anymore”. It is both his time in the desert and the, dare I call it, ministrations of Fintan, which bring him to this new sense of self. Late in the novel, before the final drama that brings their time in the desert to its conclusion, Fintan says to Jaxie, “I suspect that God is what you do, not what or who you believe in”. When the crisis comes, Jaxie sees himself as an “instrument of God”, but my, it’s not a particularly pretty one!

In other words, none of this is as neat as we might like. Fintan is a complex shepherd, and Jaxie a problematic subject of his shepherding. There are no simple solutions, and there are no perfect beings, but there are people who are prepared to go through fire (or the desert, as the case may be) in order to come to a better understanding of themselves. “I know what I am now”, Jaxie says at the end, but whether he achieves the peace he believes is coming, whether he, with his “for fucksake don’t get in my way” attitude, is truly capable of achieving it, is the question we are left with. I’d like to think so.

Jaxie, then, is an original, compelling character whose edgy energy wins you over despite yourself. He challenges us to consider how violence plays out in contemporary society, and forces us to confront what this violence does to us. Through him, Winton asks whether redemption is possible and, more importantly, what that might look like. The shepherd’s hut is a book I could read many times and find something new to consider every time. That makes it a special read.

Tim Winton
The shepherd’s hut
Penguin Random House Australia, 2019 (orig. ed. 2018)
266pp.
ISBN: 9780143795490

28 Comments leave one →
  1. November 27, 2019 11:57 pm

    I’m interested that you liked this book so much. I’ve been avoiding it, on the basis that I don’t think Winton has much more to offer. I’ll certainly listen to it if it comes out on audiobook – he’s far from the worst writer I suffer while I work. But I hope he’s got his geography right. There are not many places where farming and mining overlap, only Southern Cross really which is where the Wheatbelt meets the Goldfields. Magnet, if he means Mt Magnet, is 300 km north of the Wheatbelt, in desert scrub country that used to support sheep, but is now mainly left to goats. Still no Aborigines? Hard to write about WA without mentioning them.

    • November 28, 2019 8:14 am

      I thought a lot about you as I read this Bill, wondering what you’d think. To be honest there’s a mythic quality to place here that I decided not even to check whether the places were real. I think they weren’t-only a couple are named. Still he names real plants so I suspect he has a real area in mind. Probably the one you mention. Anyhow, do try to listen to it – It’s a book that could come alive with a good reader.

    • November 28, 2019 8:23 am

      Oops, there are references to indigenous people Bill. I nearly mentioned that, but they are referenced as I think they should be for this story, ie as people and culture Jaxie is aware of, but not as people he meets on this lonely journey. I’ve seen this start to happen in novels and I think it’s good. It reflects growing awareness of indigenous people and their culture as being part of who we are and what we know.

      • November 28, 2019 8:56 am

        My opinion is that Winton (and Carey) are telling us they live in a white world and don’t know anything about Indigenous people. In WA, particularly outside the Wheatbelt it would not be possible to not interact with Indigenous people, certainly not for a boy down on his luck, and it’s not good enough for Winton to treat them as just landscape.

        • November 28, 2019 9:13 am

          He doesn’t treat them as landscape but Jaxie is on his own journey and it’s one where he’s planning to avoid people as much as he can. Except for his family story told in flashback, Fintan is the only person he engages with, and that wasn’t willingly done either.

          It seems to me a bit as though white writers, right now, are being damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

          BTW, this is Winton from a WA Today interview in 2018:

          “A few years back, Winton spent time travelling with the Ngarinyin people of the Kimberley. Despite their “many challenges and sorrows”, he says, “they maintain secret and sacred pathways that are highly complex and sophisticated. For the boys who have been through the Law, there was a sense of certainty and solidity you don’t see in their suburban Australian counterparts.” He is not suggesting mainstream Australians adopt some “bogus imitation” of Indigenous rituals. “But the stuff we put value on and the stuff we dismiss out of hand, they say a lot about us, don’t you think?”

  2. November 28, 2019 1:06 am

    I thought I recognised elements of land/mining exploitation/skulduggery in the story…Like Bill I wouldn’t say that I am a fan of Tim’s writing – more a fan of the man and his interviews and his views on coastal W.A./Australia – but I found this story compelling…

    • November 28, 2019 8:25 am

      Thanks Jim, I think there are elements of that and of cynicism re organised religion, but they’re not his main game are they? I’m glad you fovnd it wmpelhng too. And like you, I love listening to him, as he’s so quietly reflective and thoughtful.

  3. Jim KABLE permalink
    November 28, 2019 1:08 am

    And that’s the thing – getting the geography/landscape/feel – right – if real places are being invoked/referenced!

    • November 28, 2019 8:31 am

      Yes but I don’t think they are. I think Winton tends to avoid naming real places, but I do think he uses real settings. (Angelus and White Point in earlier works are good examples.) My attitude is that if, perchance, he has concatenated some landscapes here it would be missing the point to make it an issue. However, my suspicion is that Winton knows and cares about WA enough to be pretty right about this?

  4. November 28, 2019 5:47 am

    How can one writer come up with so many storylines ? – seems like magic to me. Tim, early on, was the writer of a book about where I grew up; but has long since become the writer of (a limited) everywhere. Of (a limited) everyone.
    Am unable to grasp how writers of fiction do it.
    But then, am unable to comprehend how people who review their books do it, either.
    🙂

    • November 28, 2019 8:34 am

      Haha, M-R, thanks!

      I love your description of what sort of writer Winton has become – “the writer of (a limited) everywhere. Of (a limited) everyone”.

  5. November 28, 2019 5:57 am

    Both books sound very good. Young people exposed to and subjected to violence is the root of so much misery in the world.

    As to the question if it can be overcome and transcended. I think that it can and that people do manage to do so.

  6. Meg permalink
    November 28, 2019 6:07 am

    Hi Sue, love your review. My book group read it and all thought it was a great read – and everyone is not a fan of Tim Winton. As you say he set the tone and interest from the beginning and it carried it all the way through. A lot of ideas to consider.

    • November 28, 2019 8:36 am

      Thanks Meg, yes my group did it too. I may not have read it otherwise, but I would have missed something very special if I hadn’t. A lot of ideas to consider as you say.

  7. November 28, 2019 5:22 pm

    I really enjoyed this book. Great review.

  8. Annette Marfording permalink
    November 28, 2019 5:30 pm

    Like some of the earlier commentators, I don’t always like Tim Winton’s books. But this one I absolutely loved! What a strong voice, what compelling characters, what fantastic descriptions of place! Like your idea of goats alluding to scapegoats.

    • November 28, 2019 9:57 pm

      Thanks Annette. And thanks re the scapegoat — I think though that I got so carried away with the idea that I lost my main thread (the “males in extremis” idea) in my review. However, if it added another thought to what’s out there, then I’m happy.

      The voice is just wonderful isn’t it? So well sustained.

  9. November 28, 2019 6:44 pm

    LOL Maybe I should get round to reading my copy!

    • November 28, 2019 9:36 pm

      I’d love to see what you think…. I’m not really happy with my write up. I feel I got off too much on a tangent in the middle and couldn’t haul it back. Oh well. The actual reading is the important thing.

      • November 28, 2019 11:36 pm

        I’m not a Winton fan, as you know, but this one interests me more than others have. But I really ought to read Eyrie first…

        • November 29, 2019 8:17 am

          Ought you? I haven’t/didn’t! I would like to read it however.

  10. November 29, 2019 9:29 am

    Well, my complaint about Winton is that he writes the same old stories in the same old settings over and over again, but apparently Eyrie was set in the city. So it was a point of departure which interested me.

    • November 29, 2019 10:47 am

      Yes, I think it is set in Fremantle, which interests me. I don’t think they’re the same old story, actually. Any more, anyhow, than some other writers, like Austen? It’s interesting though that some do stay within a similar milieu, for want of a better term, while others like, say, Atwood and Peter Carey, have spread widely haven’t they?

      • November 29, 2019 10:57 am

        All Winton’s stories of adolescent boys in the south-west are pretty similar. Eerie is OK though for some reason he turns it into a thriller at the end, as though he didn’t know what else to do with it. I like The Turning the best, partly because the form suits his writing.

      • November 29, 2019 11:01 am

        Well, yes, that’s what I think, and his characters are often so dreary. That was the impression that I had after reading The Turning and Dirt Music, and I gave up on him after that, allowing only Breath under my guard, (and not liking that either). But this one, by the sound of it, has a more lively, upbeat sort of character, so maybe…

        • November 29, 2019 10:41 pm

          Clearly I don’t agree Bill and Lisa! Some, but no more than half I’d say, of his adult novels, are about adolescents. The rest are about adult men or families. Breath was in the voice of a middle-aged man looking back on his adolescence, and it was largely about male risk-taking (though it did get into other issues as well) while The shepherd’s hut is about violence and its impact on a young man. Can he break out of what he’s grown up with. Jaxie’s story is very different to that of Pikelet (I think his name was) in Breath.

          The riders and Dirt music were about partnered/married men as I recollect. Cloudstreet of course is multigenerational. The turning is different again, and contains many stories of people of different ages and genders. That eye, the sky and In the winter dark are, as I recollect, about boys or young men. Shallows, my first Winton, is as I recollect a partnered man. I can’t bring up, though, the themes or driving ideas behind all these. Too long ago.

          As for dreary … some of them have dreary lives, I agree. However, the characters themselves are not dreary to me, because of the way Winton writes them and encourages us to see the lives they are, often, stuck with. That was certainly the overriding sense I got from The turning which, like Bill, I liked. I’m wondering Lisa, whether you like Anita Brookner? I haven’t read her recent books, but I did like her a lot. However, if you are talking dreariness in characters, she’d get an A+!

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