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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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! 

Perth fiction: not just surviving but thriving

Anything could carry disease: a handshake, a coin, a kiss. At least coins and tokens could be boiled.

The first details I heard of Survival, the debut novella of my one-time journalistic colleague Rachel Watts, acted like the most tantalising kind of teaser movie trailer.

First, it was sci-fi, set in a flooded city. Flooded cities are my jam. I’ve always been captivated by the idea of rowing from roof to roof. Grim real-world cyclones and hurricanes aside, I just freaking love it.

Second, it was young adult sci-fi! I’ve always believed YA fiction vitally important. The tone and the quality must be perfect if you’re going to get through to a teenager. A good young adult book means an exceptional book, period. Some of the most formative books of my entire life, those I regularly revisit, are young adult. Lockie Leonard. The Great Gatenby. John Marsden’s Tomorrow series and Ellie Chronicles. Too many to mention, and others whose titles I’ve long forgotten but whose memories I remember vividly.

So when my advance copy arrived I turned to Survival with anticipation and found only more killer elements.

Post-apocalyptic? Check. Natural disasters? Check. Giant squid? Be still, my beating heart. If there is one sci-fi trope I love above all else it is a kraken. John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes is one of my favourites.

The story is set in a post-climate change world. Governments and economies have collapsed. The Scylla Corporation, the world’s only remaining multinational, rules with an iron fist. Cities are flooded, though people continue to live in them as best they can.

In one such city live two young women. One, a bartender, is living day to day, hand to mouth, grieving the mysterious disappearance of her activist sister.

The other is a number-cruncher who lives in the secure Scylla complex, whose ordered world crumbles the day she finds evidence of something horrifying in Corporation medical research data.

The two, though vastly different, meet by chance and find themselves aligned in their pursuit of the truth.

The book feels a little Children of Men, a little Resident Evil, even a little like the final book in Mervyn Peake’s incredible Gormenghast trilogy, the book of the castle sinking into a rising river.

Watts has done her research. Her flooded world is fully and powerfully imagined: the poverty of half-submerged suburbs, the economies that struggle to adapt and stay afloat, and the shining beacon of a ruling corporation that overlooks it all with chilling indifference.

The pictures appear in your mind fully formed: disease-ridden coins, dropped in jars of bleach at market stalls. The filth that rises in the streets when unbearable humidity condenses into torrential rains. The food seller’s daughter with both feet amputated after an infection. The fishermen who trade in squid that has become the most plentiful resource in a warped ocean ecosystem. The silent presence of a rumoured giant squid, that bears witness to a clandestine meeting in a stadium that the new world has transformed into a giant fishbowl.

In a state in which our own new tricked-out stadium has just opened, in a country in which action on climate change is at stalemate, this dystopian vision is particularly chilling.

I loved the idea of this book from the start because it had so many of the best hallmarks of a genre I love. But there is no hint of the formulaic here. Watts’ streetscapes are completely original and her voice, steely and edgy, is her own.

This debut indicates a promising new voice in Western Australian fiction and happily she’s not short of ideas: the bonus content is four of the author’s previously published stories, gems that indicate a fertile imagination. So: watch this space.

Watts’ novella is available from tomorrow at Crow Books and other select stockists.

And if Perth fiction is your jam, check out some more new releases: The Sisters’ Song by Louise Allan, if you like family sagas and Australian historical fiction; Dustfall by Michelle Johnston if you like your literature with a side of medical thriller; and You Belong Here by Laurie Steed, a beautiful piece of contemporary literary fiction. All in stores now.