Book review: The Shepherd’s Hut, by Tim Winton

Tim Winton PIC: Hank Kordas
Tim Winton PIC: Hank Kordas
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What a peculiar, disorientating and astonishing novel this is. It begins as one thing and ends as another, and yet the stitching towards these diverse tones is seamless. We begin with Jaxie Clackton, a young Australian whose mother has died, and whose father is quick with his fists. When he returns home to find his father dead in an almost comical accident, he takes the opportunity to light out for the territories. It is a kind of freedom without freedom, since he goes walkabout fearing that the police will think he has engineered the death of, as he calls him, “Captain Wankbag”. He is heading off to see a mysterious person, Lee, about whom we find more anon. Let us say he gets slightly sidelined.

It is difficult to review a novel like this, as the plot twists in extraordinary ways and one should be wary of giving away the details. But, given the title, I think it is fair to say that Jaxie meets a priest at the eponymous shepherd’s hut. There is, the character Fintan would say, no such thing as a former priest – but there is certainly one who has been deserted in the desert, for reasons that are ambiguous.

The novel starts like an Australian version of Catcher In The Rye. Jaxie is a disaffected, lonesome, difficult child – there is an immensely moving moment quite far into the novel where he reveals he is not at all tall – and his pilgrimage (yes, that word was chosen significantly) is similar to Holden Caulfield’s attempt to find himself by running away. By the end we are far more in Cormac McCarthy territory. Things become apocalyptic. Decisions are made that will have consequences. It all takes place on a blasted heath. The moral structure of the novel is beautifully balanced. Jaxie would be the first to admit that he’s done things that aren’t good. Fintan seems crippled by an unspecified sin.

The first thing a reader would notice on opening this book is that Winton does not give the reader much leeway in terms of language. It is written in Jaxie’s own demotic. For example, he says, “Me phone’s dead anyway”, and the same page has “fanging north”, “mulga scrub”, and on later pages there is a consistent substitution of “of” for “have” – I would of, rather than I would have. Eat is always et, clothes are dugs, and I have no idea what a “euro” is, although in this context you infer it is a young kangaroo he has shot in order to eat. It becomes almost lyrical as the novel progresses. The reader attunes. I would think that Scottish readers, well acquainted with novels that try to capture the very timbre of speech, might be more readily open to this grammatical and lexical difficulty. But, as I say, as one presses on the camber of the sentences becomes a wonder of its own. It is rare to say that nobody else could write a novel such as this.

I pondered for a while on finishing this book, as it seemed as if there was an influence I had not noticed. Of course, it is there in plain sight. Although the only author mentioned in it is Dostoyevsky, the presiding predecessor is Patrick White, the great Australian novelist and author of such similarly morally tangled novels as The Vivisector and Voss. Like White, there is a strong undertow of religious symbolism throughout. Right at the beginning, Jaxie, despite saying he is “not a softcock”, reveals that he has discovered that “not even in your weirdest dreams do you think you’re an instrument of God”. Fintan, the disgraced priest, gives the other epiphany, when he says, “And the moon is only the moon. But they’re not empty things you know. The past is still in them. The force of events long gone, it lingers. These heavenly bodies and earthly forms, what are they but expressions of matters unfinished? …Mebbe lunatics are men who’ve remembered they’re just men, not angels”.

The book wheels, just as the moon does, through senses. At the outset, we get a huge number of colour words. Then it becomes scents, the blood from animals for example, or the lovely detail about opening a can of pineapple. Then it becomes touch – the gravel on the ground and the wetness of your shoes. Finally hearing becomes the motif. Jaxie can hear things in the wilderness (did I mention it had Biblical overtones?) and is also, for the first time, heard.

Winton has written a novel which – and I can have no higher praise – I wish to re-read. Even writing this and looking back over my notes, I spotted a lot that had slipped past on a first reading, how things are foreshadowed and foregrounded. It is clever, canny and complex. It is as kind as doves and as subtle as serpents – one moment Jaxie is a rotten little thug, the next he is the kindliest person. But then there is the question of the ending. You won’t see it coming.

Book review: The Shepherd’s Hut, by Tim Winton, Picador, 14.99