Tim Winton is one of Australia’s best known and most acclaimed writers, having won the Miles Franklin prize for fiction four times (in 1984, 1992, 2002, 2009) as well as a number of other literary awards. Eyrie (20013) is his most recent book.
Tom Keely, at a very low point in his life, has retreated to a seedy apartment at the top of the shabby Mirador high rise block in Freemantle. His wife has thrown him out and he has lost his job as an environmental campaigner for reasons never fully disclosed. He has cut himself off from former friends and acquaintances, tries to avoid his family, and seems to be only interested in finding some sort of oblivion through pills and alcohol. One day he encounters a neighbour, Gemma, who recognises him as someone she knew when they were children. She has clearly had a hard life. She has a young boy with her, Kai, who for some reason catches Keely’s attention. Is his interest in Kai going to be enough to anchor him back in into ordinary day-to-day existence? Or is involvement with Gemma and the boy going to make his situation worse?
Some critics have described this as an ‘almost thriller’, but don’t look for page-turning action. The book is mostly about the ebbs and flows of Keely’s resolve – whether he can even make it down the street for a coffee – let alone contemplate a future. Winton’s plot development is clever, as Keely becomes unintentionally involved in a world outside his experience – and any competence he might have once had. But there is a problem to be solved, and Keely is sort of on a quest to solve it, so I guess it is sort of a thriller. But I think it is more a book about family; his relationship with his mother and sister, his memories of his dead father and his desire to protect Kai are what drive the action. He has ‘no tribe to claim him but family.’ I didn’t understand the end, though.
It’s no coincidence that Keely has been an environmental activist; Winton, though a very private figure, is deeply committed to a number of environmental projects. I suspect Keely’s dystopian vision of Western Australian is also Winton’s: its highest aims are ‘to drill, strip, fill or blast.’ It is ‘the nation’s quarry, China’s swaggering enabler. A philistine giant eager to pass off its good fortune as virtue, quick to explain its short comings as east-coast conspiracies.’ Winton writes wonderfully about landscape, often hot, arid and forbidding, but sometimes majestic, even uplifting. You have to love his description of Fremantle: ‘dazed and forsaken at the rivermouth, the addled wharfside slapper whose good bones showed through despite the ravages of age and bad living … spared only by a century of political neglect. Hunkered in the desert wind, cowering beneath the austral sun.’
Though I find Winton’s writing powerful, I nevertheless had at times to force myself to continue reading. And here I come up against a problem that I know others have had with the book. Keely is not a character I was able to care about. I’m not suggesting that readers should like the subjects of literature – far from it. Obviously we aren’t supposed to like him; he is presented as sunk in his own self-pity. ‘He lacked the gumption to set things right, he was too accustomed to the logic of defeat.’ He knows this is what his mother Doris thinks, though she doesn’t say so. ‘Her view was undoubtedly this: that by now her only son could reasonably be expected to pick himself up amidst the wreckage of his life and make something new happen.’ She thinks he is ‘shopping in despair’s boutiques.’ I’m with Doris. His continually self-destructive behaviour simply got on my nerves. Gemma, however damaged, is at least doing her best. And Keely does try sometimes; he still believes in love, the ‘one shred of faith he wouldn’t let go of.’ I can see there is black humour in some of his stuff-ups. It may be that I am blinded by my own prejudices here. But equally, it may be that Winton has created a character that is predictably feckless to point of caricature. Most reviewers don’t agree with me; this one praises the book for its ‘openness to the abject and unlovable’, and this one, concedes that Winton’s character can be ‘flawed and sometimes exasperating’, but thinks this may make readers ‘care about them more than you should’. Well, it didn’t work that way for me.
There’s a lot more richness to the book than I’ve suggested here, and it is worth reading just for the power of Winton’s writing. There is the extended metaphor of falling – ‘there’s no feeling as sweet as falling’ – the bruised innocence of Kai, the theme of birds, the exploration of the male ego and violence, Keely’s relationship with his dead father – and much more. Maybe I’m talking myself round to liking it ….
It’s probably not surprising that Winton doesn’t have a web-site. You can find some minimal information about him here.