The Shepherd's Hut review: Tim Winton's austere, beautiful and compelling novel
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The Shepherd's Hut review: Tim Winton's austere, beautiful and compelling novel

Fiction
The Shepherd's Hut
Tim Winton
Hamish Hamilton, $39.99

There is music in this brilliant and uncomfortable book. Much of the time, it is drowned out by other sounds, not least the pained narrative voice of Jackson Clackton.

An austere, beautiful and compelling novel: Author Tim Winton.

An austere, beautiful and compelling novel: Author Tim Winton.

Photo: Simon Schluter SMS

Jaxie is a teenager at risk. He has grown up in a world of knives and guns, hunters and drinkers. His father, Sid, whom he calls Captain Wankbag, is a violent alcoholic, the butcher in a small town in Western Australia, Monkton, where the local IGA has closed down, leaving little more than the roadhouse, pub and silo. Sid listens to the radio "with some angry old prick barking stuff". The town tiptoes around Sid, not least because it needs meat. There is a lot of meat in this book; the fruit mostly comes in cans.

Sid was appalling to his wife, Shirley, who has recently died of cancer. Jaxie knows she stuck it out for his sake and this leaves him feeling confused and responsible for what his mother endured. He wonders how "something that good and pure can feel so filthy". This is one of a number of gritty moral conundrums that Winton explores in adult depth through the eyes of a teenager.

The Shepherd's Hut by Tim Winton.

The Shepherd's Hut by Tim Winton.

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The Cap's drinking and violence deteriorate. As the novel opens, Jaxie is carrying a damaged eye and is becoming prey to his own murderous anger. But fortune steps in: Sid is as much a danger to himself as to anyone that comes within the gravitational pull of his rage. Jaxie comes home to find that Sid has been working on his Hilux in the shed and it has rolled on him and killed him. Jaxie knows immediately that "the old turd was cactus".

In one of countless brilliant flicks of prose in this book, he notices the tracks of a lizard through his father's blood. Winton uses the natural world as more than a canvas; it is the silent witness of human desperation. Rocks can get mistaken for people in places Jaxie calls "bumf--- nowhere". In The Shepherd's Hut, people don't get lost in the bush. They seek asylum in the bush because they are lost already.

Jaxie grabs a few provisions, including a water bottle and a pair of binoculars that will become pivotal in the story, and heads off into the dry yonder. Winton sneaks in the ghost of an explanation for Sid's behaviour: he and his hunting mate, Bill Cox, were in the army. Shirley says they were overseas together but won't give anything else away.

This detail casts a wash over the narrative in the same way that bare hints of wartime experience colour the water of Dirt Music (2002), a book that shares a number of concerns with The Shepherd's Hut. Readers may recall in Dirt Music the prevalence of drinking, hidden violence and Luther Fox's flight into the wilderness. The Shepherd's Hut is as masterful as Dirt Music but has a more sure sense of what it needs to achieve. It is concerned that Jaxie will have little choice but to emulate the destructive chaos of his father. "You're no better than your father," Shirley says. This is the real worry. Winton asks what it would take to change the script.

Eventually, in what feels like the middle of one of Samuel Beckett's nowheres, Jaxie will encounter the mysterious Fintan MacGillis who is old, short and fat. The narrative bursts into flower in the desert when it becomes the story of these two men: one who has found a kind of peace, the other desperate for it.

The portrayal of Fintan is extraordinary, one of the highlights of Winton's career. He has been living in an abandoned shepherd's hut beside a dry lake for eight years; somebody brings him supplies at Christmas and Easter.

He is also a priest and it is unclear why he has been forced into such profound solitude.He denies that he has abused children in any way, which is what the reader might suspect. Indeed, it is possible that Fintan has chosen to live as a contemplative hermit; maybe this is not punishment after all. There are hints of some kind of delicate political past. At one stage, he drops his guard enough to tell Jaxie that he has seen bodies bulldozed into a mass grave.

He talks a lot, which annoys the taciturn Jaxie, saying that he is in refuge as much as exile. "Have you read your man Dostoevski, then," he asks. It would have been surprising if Jaxie had answered in the affirmative but the question shows that Fintan, unlike Jaxie, doesn't judge people by appearances.

Jaxie takes a long time to begin to trust Fintan but, as he does so, he sheds the hard shell his life has cased around him. He actually lets Fintan touch him, if only to shave his head. Fintan's hut shares the Russian writer's sense of the habitable abyss, the absence where one meets the present. It is a place in which acceptance allows nothing to become everything.

Like Scully in The Riders, Jaxie is never going to be still. He longs to keep moving, to find his girlfriend. cousin, Lee, who happens also to be his cousin, in the aptly named town of Magnet. Jaxie is sustained by an idealised image of Lee. But Fintan moves in a deeper sense because he is not going anywhere. He says "if I had to leave this place now, I'm not sure I would". He has sunk roots in a place he thought initially was "Hell itself".

When Fintan enters the story, Jaxie hears him singing. He is not the only source of music in The Shepherd's Hut: Shirley has a piano she no longer plays. She used to be in a choir. Music has a role in drawing poison, just as it does in Dirt Music. But there's also music in silence. Jaxie articulates his need for peace. He gets closest to it when he can be still.

The Shepherd's Hut, like much of Winton's work, is exasperated by cheap, packaged spirituality. But it knows the bloody, earthy taste of the real thing. It is what will feed and nourish a character such as Jaxie who has taught himself to survive on emotional junk food. His well-being depends on his developing an appreciation of his contemplative nature. Winton's spirituality will always frustrate those with packaged answers, whether they are religious or the opposite. He drills into the human soul down past labels. Jaxie may be "an instrument of God" but Winton makes the reader work to figure out what this might mean.

The Shepherd's Hut is a landmark book in Winton's career: austere, beautiful and compelling. It has a subtle moral clarity that stands out even in a career that has relentlessly searched for the gold hidden in human rubble. The book is wise in areas, such as anger and masculinity, where most of us just have theories. In the anger of Jaxie, Winton has heard the confusion and need that lie behind the struggle for an authentic, tender and honest masculinity that is one of our major cultural challenges.

After three readings, The Shepherd's Hut was still yielding the riches of its unblinking vision of hope, a vision that will renew readers for generations to come.

Michael McGirr is the dean of faith at St Kevin's College in Melbourne.

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