This novel is one of my best reads of 2018, and certainly one of the most powerful. Winton’s writing is so visceral that I experienced this book with all my senses; feeling, seeing and hearing it as much as reading it. Three months after finishing it, I still get glimpses in my mind of the stark setting and the fiercely vulnerable protagonist, Jaxie Clacton.
Despite generally disliking books written in the vernacular, I always read Winton with appreciation as he is one of the few authors who nails it. Jaxie is a deeply wounded Australian teenager who refers to his abusive father as ‘Captain Wankbag’ and describes him as the ‘deadest cunt’; who tells us that houses in the desolate landscape through which he traverses are as ‘rare as rocking horse turds’. At the same time, however, Winton has created a character who is also poetic and lyrical in his use of language, reflecting an inner sensitivity.
At the start of the novel, Jaxie avoids being at home with his father who has taken to beating him up instead of his mother, who recently died of cancer. The townsfolk know about this abuse but turn a blind eye, so when Jaxie’s father is killed in a freak accident at home, Jaxie realises he has to flee to avoid being accused of murder.
He decides to go to the one other person who understands him – his cousin – but to get there he has to travel across the vast Western Australian wheat belt. On an isolated journey evocative of Patrick White’s Voss and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Jaxie struggles to survive in the waterless, barren environment. He kills kangaroos for food, leaving their bloody butchered bodies hanging from trees; he fantasises about fresh water as his tongue curls up with thirst; he is gutted when he realises that a shimmering lake is merely a mirage on the inhospitable salt pans. Winton’s sense of setting is masterful – the brutal heat and dryness, the persistent flies, the dust, the sticky blood; I could feel it, see it.
So when Jaxie hears someone singing in the scrub around the salt flats, he is forced to approach for help or face death. He sees ‘just an old fella. Mostly bald. Walking dainty like his feet’s tender.’ Fintan McGillas is a disgraced Irish Catholic priest who has withdrawn from society and lives alone in an old shepherd’s hut, brought supplies every couple of months by the church. Fintan is desperately in need of company, and Jaxie in need of water, so he takes up Fintan’s offer to come into the hut and begrudgingly accepts being fed, bathed and clothed by him. Jaxie stays, despite his suspicion of the defrocked priest – we don’t find out what Fintan’s sin was, though he says to Jaxie: ‘I am no pedo’ . Because of their differing needs, the two are forced into a wary relationship, in which trust is slowly built and an unusual friendship grows.
They might be isolated but humanity still encroaches on them in the end, and the book finishes with Jaxie still in motion, still having to move on to escape a situation, however not the one that I initially envisaged.
Winton has written a book here that operates on many levels with different themes emerging – masculinity and anger, faith and salvation, insecurity and determination, and the allegorical journey of self-discovery. It is at once a novel of beauty and brutality, and one that I found impossible to put down.
Tim Winton is refreshingly outspoken about the role of masculinity in today’s society, and what has gone wrong with it. In an interview in The Guardian newspaper, he says:
Boys and young men are so routinely expected to betray their better natures, to smother their consciences, to renounce the best of themselves and submit to something low and mean. As if there’s only one way of being a bloke, one valid interpretation of the part, the role, if you like. There’s a constant pressure to enlist, to pull on the uniform of misogyny and join the Shithead Army that enforces and polices sexism. And it grieves me to say it’s not just men pressing those kids into service.