Sheep, goats, God and man: Tim Winton’s The Shepherd’s Hut

When I hit the bitumen and get that smooth grey rumble going under me everything’s hell different. Like I’m in a fresh new world all slick and flat and easy. Even with the engine working up a howl and the wind flogging in the window the sounds are real soft and pillowy. Civilised I mean. Like you’re still on the earth but you don’t hardly notice it anymore. And that’s hectic. You’d think I never got in a car before. But when you’ve hoofed it like a dirty goat all these weeks and months, when you’ve had the stony slow prickle-up hard country right in your face that long it’s bloody sudden. Some crazy shit, I tell you. Brings on this angel feeling. Like you’re just one arrow of light.

 

Our culture is shackling men to a toxic misogyny that is not doing either men or women any favours, and stopping our society moving forward.

This was the subject of Winton’s electrifying speech delivered at the 2017 Perth Writer’s Week and of his latest novel, The Shepherd’s Hut.

Obviously, Winton’s hour-long speech explains his point much better than my attempt at a one-line encapsulation, so don’t argue before you listen to it (this recorded in Melbourne, but same speech).

And The Shepherd’s Hut tells the story of Jaxie Clackton, raised with domestic violence and emotional poverty, in a small town that turns a blind eye to his mother’s bruises. She won’t leave his abusive alcoholic father. Her escape is to die of cancer, leaving her teenage son to endure the thrashings alone.

It’s told in the first person, giving fucked-up, foul-mouthed Jaxie room to let loose: “the prose equivalent of a good long slug of room-temperature rum,” Good Weekend described it.

When his father dies in a sudden accident in the opening pages, Jaxie is terrified he’ll be blamed and flees north deep into the Wheatbelt. Starving and dehydrated, he comes upon a vast salt lake. And on its border, an old shepherd’s hut.

There lives Fintan, a defrocked Irish priest hiding a secret. He’s been there eight years. Twice a year someone drives in supplies and asks him to atone for his sins. He never does and the sins are never revealed, though there are hints at some kind of political scandal. He takes Jaxie in, gives him food and water, and nurses him into health and a prickly, cautious friendship.

He give me a pannikin of tea and he sat back down and drunk his slow and methodical. I looked back at that bead thing on the shelf. It was way out of place in a hut like this, in an old dude’s stuff, and he could see me sussing it out and I thought for sure he’d get on his hind legs and say fifty-nine things about it but the look on his face said that wasn’t gunna happen, like it was off limits.
Good chops, I said.

The book is highly readable. By 50 pages in, compulsion sets in and I rip through it at warp speed. Writing Jaxie, Winton lets you look straight through the eyes of a rough kid staring down the barrel of a hopeless future. He’s gone full immersion, Stanislavsky style. The voice of our country’s most famous writer is entirely subsumed by this angry little dero, all burred up like a scorpion about to strike, as his own girlfriend describes him. Winton’s not building complex characters and scenery like in his other books; it’s all narrative drive.

The writing glows like a hot coal. He builds the story like he’s building a fire, first placing your empathy, then your hope, then slowly your foreboding, priming you for the explosion you know is coming.

But it ain’t genre fiction, no matter how thrilling, and so, as with much good literary novels you’re required to do a little head scratching at the end.

My boss Fran and I were both puzzled, and we came up with zilch, so I did a little research and I present below some hints on how to think about it all. Don’t worry; no spoilers.

Think about the old priest as a Christian shepherd. He’s living in a shepherd’s hut, but there are no sheep left. Being too old to hunt roos for meat like Jaxie, he lures and traps goats into a backyard water trap to slit their throats. He does no shepherding, until he takes Jaxie in and saves his life, giving him food, drink and succour in the Christian tradition of welcoming a stranger.

The mysterious old sinner is both a bad shepherd and a good shepherd.

And the symbol of the sacrificial goat will appear again.

In the Australian Book Review, Brenda Niall says this notion of a priest atoning for sins in the desert recalls an 1850s painting by Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat.

“Hunt bought a white goat. He took the goat to the margin of the salt-encrusted Dead Sea, where he set up his easel. A piece of red cloth, representing the sins of the world, was tied to the goat’s horns,” she wrote.

“Hunt was dramatising the Old Testament text in which ‘the Goat shall bear upon him all [the people’s] iniquities unto a land not inhabited’. This, in Christian belief, is in accord with the idea of the suffering Christ as the bearer of the world’s sins and sorrows.”

Whether or not Winton was purposefully invoking this particular painting, you are left with clear symbols: a shepherd, the sacrificial goat, Jaxie as an ‘instrument of God’.

Is Jaxie receiving a sacrifice as the son of God, made in his image as Christianity tells us all people are, and therefore deserving of a brighter future?

And, more obviously: how can Jaxie avoid becoming his father, and make his own brighter future?

How can our society do better than ignoring suffering, allowing a poisonous and violent version of manhood to continue, letting evil flourish?

Winton told the New York Times his ability to describe the world he sees makes him rich despite his modest upbringing; that this book is a nod to those boys without that luxury.

“Such a narrow lexicon, range of words, strong feelings with no way of expressing them except with their fists,” he said. “That’s poverty.”

 

And I drive like that, just under the limit, with a chop in one hand and the wheel in the other. Laughing hard enough to choke. For the first time in my 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.

 

 

In other Winton news, two of his other Booker-shortlisted books have now been picked up for films after the success of Breath (highly recommended). Dirt Music will likely be filmed in WA. And…! My favourite Winton novel The Riders will be produced by Ridley Scott! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Beguiled, or ‘women making movies from books by men about women.’

After watching The Virgin Suicides I wanted more books by Jeffrey Eugenides and more films by Sofia Coppola.

I now have a copy of Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, but that’s on a ridiculously big to-read pile, so more on that later. Quicker gratification was had through renting Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, a Southern gothic set in rural Mississippi during the American Civil War.

Released last year, it has a high-powered cast; Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst play two hot but buttoned-up schoolmarms looking after a few stranded students (including Elle Fanning, Australia’s Angourie Rice, from Jasper Jones) all walled up in their seminary on the edge of a forest waiting out the war.

One of the younger girls comes across a wounded enemy soldier in the forest and her teachers decide not to turn him in and to tend his wounds and let him recover his health within their four walls instead.

But nobody reckons on the hotbed of lust that can become of a bunch of beautiful women of varying age locked up with a charmingly helpless (but growing stronger every day) Colin Farrell. In short you don’t know who needs protecting more, him or them, and that scenario keeps changing over the course of the movie.

It has the Coppola cinematography I craved. The outdoor shots, particularly, of the massive trees dripping with Spanish moss, dwarfing the human story playing out beneath them, somehow frame the whole story, emphasising their isolation and heightening the sense of dreamy beauty. And the intimate shots of the women and their faces make for another sensitive portrayal of human beauty, emotion and desire.

The narrative has plenty of suspense, fuelled by a sense of imminent danger and disaster, and controlled, nuanced performances from the actors. The ending, when it comes, is melancholic and subdued. I didn’t mind that too much, but Charlie, who I watched it with, was disappointed, having hoped for something a bit more dramatic. The Ministry probably would have hated the ending.

Interestingly, like The Virgin Suicides, this was a female director making a movie from a book about female power and sexuality, that was originally written by a male author.

I wonder in circumstances like these about the multiple acts of creative perception and imagination that led to what I finally see onscreen, especially since it’s finally coloured by me, the person watching it.

It’s not haunting like The Virgin Suicides, and probably isn’t something you’d watch twice. But I would be interested to see the 1971 version (starring Clint Eastwood) and definitely recommend watching this, to anyone interested in contemporary cinema. You won’t be bored, unless you’re exclusively into Marvel movies.

Speaking of which, I’ve just seen this trailer for Venom. I don’t generally think much of Marvel movies (X-Men and other exceptions aside) but the blurb from its PR people called it “one of Marvel’s most complex characters”, and the preview looked cool (until 1.20 when I stopped watching, as I do in all trailers now). Now I’m dithering over whether to go see it. Anyone excited about this?

Big Perth: the series that nearly broke my mind

I’m dead proud of both myself and my colleagues for pulling together this massive, fascinating, data-driven, visually attractive series, which ran daily on WAtoday last week. We broke our minds so you didn’t have to!

Frankly, no other Perth-based media outlet is covering these topics, let alone harnessing these digital storytelling tools. The result, I think, is something unique.

Hope one piques your interest — or if you’ve got time, read them all. I promise you’ll learn stuff that will make you sound smart during dinner party conversations. Click the headlines to go to the story:

There are 1.4 million more people coming to Perth. Here’s where they’ll live

Do you know how many of Perth’s 800,000 new homes are planned for your neighbourhood?

  • by Emma Young

Ninety-four per cent of Perth councils fail to hit new housing targets

Halting urban sprawl involves councils building new higher density housing. They’re not off to a good start.

  • by Emma Young, Hamish Hastie, David Allan-Petale, Nathan Hondros & Conal Hanna

Halting Perth’s urban sprawl is not as easy as it sounds

‘Halting urban sprawl’ has become a catchphrase in Perth in recent years, but it’s closer to fantasy than reality, a new WAtoday analysis suggests.

  • by Emma Young & David Allan-Petale

Eight new bridges, five times the cycle paths: the plan for central Perth

There are plans to double the number of homes in Perth, Victoria Park, Subiaco and Peppermint Grove councils.

  • by Emma Young

The tiny country town set to become suburban Perth

It’s a 90-minute drive away but planners are predicting newcomers will soon outnumber existing residents four to one.

  • by Hamish Hastie

Backyards to be a relic of the past as Perth sprawls past Two Rocks

Perth’s northern suburbs are growing again but, with greater density than Subiaco, this is a different kind of sprawl.

  • by David Allan-Petale

 

Perth Hills ‘tree change’ on the chopping block in bid to halt urban sprawl

It was once the semi-rural gateway to Western Australia’s Wheatbelt, but Perth’s north-east is an unexpected epicentre for the city’s urban sprawl.

  • by Nathan Hondros

Kid on bike with space gun: coming soon to a movie theatre near you

So Stranger Things alerted the movie world to the fact that people like me will watch anything with a poster that looks like this. Accordingly, they have made a movie and released a poster that looks like this and accordingly, I am excited.
It’s from the producers of Stranger Things.

And Arrival, which I just realised I haven’t seen. This will be rectified.

It also contains Dennis Quaid and James Franco, kids on bikes and space guns. That’s all I need to know, but if you need more, here’s the blurb…

“A pulse-pounding crime thriller with a sci-fi twist from the producers of Stranger Things and ARRIVAL, KIN is the story of an unexpected hero destined for greatness. Chased by a vengeful criminal and a gang of otherworldly soldiers, a recently released ex-con and his adopted teenage brother are forced to go on the run after finding a futuristic super-weapon of mysterious origin as their only protection.”

They have released a trailer that suffers from that modern-day bane of being more than double the length it should be. So I warn you, stop watching after 1.20.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hereditary

Went to Girls School Cinema in East Perth to see Hereditary on Sunday night. I had missed it at the mainstream movies but I’d heard it should be seen on the big screen if possible.

It’s the story of a family – Annie (Toni Collette), Steve (Gabriel Byrne), their son Peter (Alex Wolff) and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). The death of Annie’s mother begins a series of grisly and disturbing events that leads her to the heart of a generations-old mystery.

I’d psyched myself up, because I had seen the trailer, which made it look like a combination of every fucked-up horror movie you’re ever seen, times 10. Amusingly, if you haven’t heard, at Event Cinemas they mistakenly played it during the previews for Peter Rabbit, totally freaking out a bunch of children and their mums (probably mainly the mums).

And I’d heard from my friend Sigrid, who is intimately acquainted with horror cinema, that it was one of the most disturbing movies she’d ever seen either. So, grimly prepared, I only let out one terrified mewling noise during the entire thing, which I was rather proud of.

The Ministry of course let out muffled snorts of laughter throughout, which we know was only his male pride deciding to view awful things as funny in order to protect himself emotionally. Right?

Because probably what was worst about this movie was its raw depiction of loss and grief and the terrible dynamics that can fester within families. It’s the combination of that with the intense horror scenes that made it so unusually confronting a movie.

All the performances were excellent, particularly Alex Wolff as the guilty, fearful and confused teenager Peter, but Collette was the obvious standout. She should win an Oscar for that performance. Her pain was awful to behold. It just remains to be seen whether an Oscar could go to a performance in a genre film.

It should! This is a smart genre film, with a dense plot. I’ve decided the use of the miniatures Collette’s character is crafting is just to keep you guessing and kind of freaked out by them (alternative theories welcome in the comments). But there were other elements of the storyline that didn’t seem to make sense, or that we thought were maybe just included for gratuitous horror purposes. We had to Google them before going, “ooooohhhhhh” and concluding that yes, it all made sense. It makes a nice change when a movie makes you work for it just a little.

This is required viewing for horror fans and Collette devotees. I fit both categories and so I’m glad I got to see it on the big screen for the full effect. It was an excellent film. But if you’re not in either category, maybe give yourself a break and pick something funny instead.

 

 

 

 

 

13 one-line book reviews: non-fiction edition

Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor E. Frankl (1959)

A psychiatrist trapped in Nazi death camps observed that people retain power to choose their own reactions, even in the worst of circumstances. A must read, a classic still in print six decades on.

 

 

Everywhere I Look, Helen Garner (2017)

An essay collection; memories, reflections, observations on all kinds of topics from one of Australia’s most celebrated authors. Utterly breathtaking writing from a master of the craft.

 

 

Work Strife Balance, Mia Freedman (2017)

Funny, insightful, generous memoir, a necessary contribution to feminist debate. I already reviewed it here.

 

 

The First Stone: some questions about sex and power, Helen Garner (1995)

Narrative nonfiction true crime – think Capote’s In Cold Blood. This discomfiting investigation of students’ sex assault allegations against a lecturer is still relevant and compulsively readable.

 

Joe Cinque’s Consolation: a true story of death, grief and the law, Helen Garner (2004)

Immediately needed more. Another unique investigation, this time of the bizarre murder of Canberran Joe Cinque. Possibly even more compulsively readable than the last.

 

Draft no. 4, John McPhee (2017)

On the art of long-form nonfiction writing by the legendary author, New Yorker writer and Princeton professor. Fascinating insights into his structuring process. Hardcore writing nerds will love it.

 

 

Tribe of Mentors, Tim Ferriss (2017)

Autodidact collects short passages of life advice from 100-plus famous people. Fun, more accessible than previous Ferriss and full of amusing, inspiring and useful nuggets. Great gift idea.

 

 

French Women for All Seasons, Mireille Giuilano (2006)

I read French Women Don’t Get Fat last year, loved it and craved more. These are only nominally diet/style books. At heart they are about our culture and our ability to celebrate and enjoy food.

 

 

Scrappy Little Nobody, Anna Kendrick (audiobook, read by author) (2016)

If you don’t love her, watch The Last 5 Years. Her memoir is hilarious, a glimpse inside Hollywood weirdness. Liked it so much I watched entire Twilight franchise just for her awkward-friend part.

 

A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis (1961)

The notebook the great Narnia author kept after his wife’s death. A fierce cry of pain and insight into the process of mourning someone vital: so personal, and yet so universal an experience.

 

 

The Passion Trap, Dean D. Celis and Cassandra Phillips (1990)

A psychologist examines the power dynamics and traps involved in both romantic relationships and friendships, and how to alter them. Should be required reading. Fascinating, sensible and practical.

 

The Boy Behind the Curtain, Tim Winton (2016)

Autobiographical essays reveal WA’s most famous writer’s early life, career formation, relationship with land and insight into WA environmental politics. Exquisitely written, frequently funny.

 

 

How to Be a Writer: who smashes deadlines, crushes editors and lives in a solid gold hover craft, John Birmingham (2016)

Refreshingly modern, useful advice on business, and craft, of being full-time multitasking Australian writer. Tough, like a face-punching Mr Money Mustache for novelists, and laugh-out-loud funny.

 

Further reading:

Peter Craven reviews ‘The Boy Behind the Curtain‘ by Tim Winton – Australian Book Review

The biggest problem with Joe Cinque’s Consolation [movie]? Helen Garner didn’t make it – The Guardian

Seven months’ worth of one-line book reviews. Go!

All the fiction I’ve read in the first half of 2018, reviewed for you here in a series of pithy one-liners. Well, they all fit on one line when I wrote them in Word.

Also available in free audiobooks from Librivox.

Entire series of 8 Anne of Green Gables novels, L. M. Montgomery

This series is classic and never fails to bring me joy. You don’t like it, you have no soul.

 

 

Dustfall, Michelle Johnston

Reviewed this for WAtoday here, so I won’t repeat, but an awesome read by a local Perth author.

 

 

 

 

 

Finders Keepers, Stephen King

Sequel to Mr Mercedes. Enjoyed almost as much. Fun, quick crime novel, but not my favourite King.

 

 

 

 

Extinctions, Josephine Wilson

Exquisitely written tale of ageing and renewal. Perth author, won Miles Franklin, Dorothy Hewett awards.

 

 

 

 

 

The Sisters’ Song, Louise Allan

Family saga that vividly evokes womens’ challenging lives in rural Tasmania in 1900s. Perth author!

 

 

 

 

 

Survival, Rachel Watts

Sci-fi novella: evil corporations rule world after Bible-style Flood. Reviewed here. Perth author!

 

 

 

 

 

You Belong Here, Laurie Steed

Sensitively told story of family love and lies, that brings Perth suburbs to life on page. Local author!

 

 

 

 

 

My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante

Begins world-famous series by Italian recluse about hard life in 1950s Naples. Wasn’t sure I liked it.

 

 

 

 

 

The Story of a New Name, Elena Ferrante

Part II. Definitely more readable than first. Began to see why global audience found so compelling.

 

 

 

 

 

Sleeping Beauties, Stephen King and Owen King

Father-son team! Classic King. Huge book, authentic characters in wild plot. Flew greedily through it.

 

 

 

 

 

The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman (audio)

Ghosts bring up human boy in a graveyard. Beautiful, whimsical, touching. A must. Read by Gaiman.

 

 

 

 

 

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen

Classic Austen. Clever and full of dry wit. So relatable: idiots back then are just like idiots now.

 

 

 

 

 

NW, Zadie Smith

A very literary style for Smith. Even as a devoted fan I found it slightly hard going, but worth reading.

 

 

 

 

 

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen

Highly enjoyable like all Austen, but not my favourite plot. Some quirky breaks through “fourth wall”.

 

 

 

 

 

Body Double, Tess Gerritsen

Rizzoli & Isles crime series. Like a drug. I inhaled this, four hours later needed more. Then, got more.

Vanish, Tess Gerritsen

See above. Nice and graphic, these novels, very easy to read, and Rizzoli and Isles good characters.

The Mephisto Club, Tess Gerritsen

See above. Sick of Tess Gerritsen after this. Crave meatier crime, like Val McDermid or Ian Rankin.

 

Afternoons with Harvey Beam, Carrie Cox

Reviewed here. A funny and highly readable first novel by a Perth author.

 

 

 

 

Now reading… Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy. Stay tuned!