Tim Winton is my own personal enigma. It’s not that I don’t value, understand, or respect his stature among Australian literary superstars — or indeed his place as one of the world’s finest contemporary writers — it’s just that I’ve yet to read one of his books that’s resonated with me as strongly as, say, Cloudstreet or Breath did for so many of my peers. I have read both of these and enjoyed them, absolutely admired them for their craft, but whereas so many others felt compelled to wax lyrically about them and offer voracious applause, I was a step back, clapping politely. I guess everyone has those authors, and those books, that are so highly regarded by seemingly everybody else on the entire planet, but left you feeling that little bit cold. You wish you could feel its embrace, all you want to do is curl up with everybody else, feel the love; but something’s holding you back, something you can’t quite explain. Nevertheless, a new book by Tim Winton was hardly something I could leave unread on the shelf. I dove into The Shepherd’s Hut, ready to be wowed, hoping this would be the one connected, that struck all the right chords and would have me singing from the same hymn sheet as everybody else.
It came very, very close. In fact, I’d so as far as to call The Shepherd’s Hut by favourite book by Tim Winton.
Jaxie Clackton is on the run, having found his father crushed to death under a Toyota Hilux. It’s an accident, but young Jaxie is convinced it won’t be viewed as such by the locals, who were all aware how savagely Sid Clackton beat his teenage son and late wife. They won’t need much convincing to believe it’s murder. So Jaxie hurriedly packs for an immediate departure — leave some vital pieces of kit behind — and vanishes into the harsh desert, whereupon he eventually happens across an old shepherd’s hut with a single, strange occupant named Fintan MacGillis; a priest with a dark secret. And whose secluded home might not be the safe haven it initially appears to be.
Jaxie is a product of his childhood. He has grown up surrounded by violence, and the tools of violence. He is an angry young man, and he stays angry, throughout the text, until its end and presumably into the future. There were long periods I hated this young protagonist. I empathised with his plight, and understood where his rage stemmed from. But there were times, nonetheless, when I might’ve hoped the harsh desert landscape would swallow him whole. This, despite his honest appraisal of himself, and his own awareness at his inherent brokeness. But I couldn’t repel the book’s hold over me.
The Shepherd’s Hut is brutal. Bruisingly so. It is a masterly encapsulation of toxic masculinity. This is Winton covering familiar territory, but it’s injected with an urgency, a sense of constant, inescapable threat that adds up to a taut page-turner. Now I desperately want to go back and re-read Cloudstreet and Breath.
Imprint: Hamish Hamilton
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia
Publish Date: 12-Mar-2018
Country of Publication: Australia