I've never read Tim Winton before and didn't quite know what to expect. I'd heard he was a literary surfer (yes, literally, a surfer), and did great description, but also that his material was not particularly plot driven. Perhaps a Western Australian John Banville.
And The Shepherd's Hut was a pretty astonishing surprise. Yes, there's plenty of description, but no surf. Jaxie Clackton is a teenage boy on the run from the authorities, somewhere in mid WA. His brutal father is dead and Jaxie is worried that he'll cop the blame, so he heads out into the bush with a vague plan of meeting up with his girlfriend Lee somewhere up north. So, yes, we get really evocative images of desert, woods, salt lakes, ridges and dirt. Very little water, which becomes a bit of a theme. There are roos and emus and euros. Ants and flies. Sheoaks and jam trees and spinifex.
This barrenness never once got boring thanks to Jaxie's engaging voice. Jaxie is headstrong, has bushcraft and trusts nobody. He has been brought up in a world with no love, and he expects violence and treachery wherever he goes. But lost in the desert, he has to follow the dusty trails of vehicles from which he is hiding. This dilemma, this calculating how far he can trust civilisation is at the heart of the story. Plus, Jaxie's determination to survive.
When Jaxie's tracking leads to the shepherd's hut - and the man who lives there - he has to decide how far he is willing to trust a stranger.
The novel is tightly plotted right up to the last paragraph. There is resolution. But there is also so much ambiguity. There are hints about Jaxie's past that suggest it might not be as straightforward as he tells it. There are hints about the shepherd's background that are never really resolved. There are remnants in the desert of previous settlement that are also never resolved. It is done in a way that is haunting rather than frustrating.
The Shepherd's Hut is a short, gripping, taut work that is at least the equal of anything else I have read this year.
Some Tests is a pretty weird book that defies definition.
Beth Own is a 37 year old mother, wife and aged-care worker who feels a little under the weather. So her husband persuades her to see the doctor. Beth’s regular doctor is not there, and the locum doctor decides to send Beth off for some tests just to conform that there’s nothing wrong. But Dr Yi decides to refer Beth off for more tests, which in turn lead to more tests.
Initially this is a fairly conventional journey around Melbourne’s northern suburbs. Box Hill, to Heidelberg, via Greensborough to Epping… The medical mystery tour comes with high and unpredictable price tags, small portions of which may be reclaimed under Medicare. The doctors presume Beth has health insurance (she doesn’t) which would cover the fees (which it wouldn’t, even if Beth had it). Anyone who has set foot in an Australian health care setting will identify with the almost incidental meeting with the doctor, bookended by form-filling and card swiping.
But when Beth pleads poverty after being referred for yet more tests, things get surreal. We go via Meadow Heights out into Regional Victoria, visiting ever more improbable healthcare settings that seem to operate under the radar of the official system. Staffed by volunteers, they aim to subvert the venality of the major health insurers and big pharma. There are similarities to Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad.
And throughout the journey, nobody bothers to tell Beth what might be wrong with her. The specialists specialties are unknown; the nature of the tests is never disclosed. By the end of the journey, the actual nature of any disorder – if there is even a disorder at all – has become irrelevant. It is the journey that matters, not the original reason for travel. Always there is the option to go back into the mainstream system, but it’s never an option that could ever be viable.
Some Tests is all about the surreal comedy, masking a serious commentary on Australia’s incomprehensible healthcare system and some thought-provoking questions about life itself. Why do we even bother with health when the end will always be death? And there are some wonderful images, especially of a public bus system run for – and exclusively used by – healthcare patients getting from one office or surgery or hospital to another, clutching letters of referral and x-ray scans. The grotty and dingy surgeries are so true to life.
The main deficit in this is the lack of characterisation. The reader cannot really care about Beth because there is no depth to her. She is an everyman placeholder, but there’s nothing to bond to. If anything, the doctors are allowed more character in their fleeting appearances than Beth is allowed across the whole novel. Colson Whitehead engaged us in his Underground Railroad – every bit as surreal and stylised as Wayne Macauley’s healthcare system – by making the reader bond with Cora, feeling her peril and celebrating her victories. Some Tests could have done something similar, even at the expense of making this rather short novel a bit longer. Nevertheless, the novel is a good read, does cover new ground and may well leave some lasting imagery.
Solid 4 stars, but could have been 5…
One of the paradoxes in Australia is that this nation of migrants has developed such strong anti-immigration sentiment. This is exploited by politicians - especially, but not exclusively, by those from the far-right Liberal Party - who will simply mention immigration and expect their followers to bay for blood.
No More Boats shows us a hard working Italian-Australian, Antonio, who has retired from the building game after an accident claimed his mobility an the life of his Greek friend Nico. Both had come to Australia on boats, part of the post-war wave of migration from southern Europe. Both had been through what was the Villawood Migrant Camp, that has since morphed into a detention centre for asylum seekers. Antonio married an Aussie volunteer at the centre, had children and paid his way. Modern Australia was built by Antonio and his generation.
And as Antonio spends more and more time navel-gazing in his enforced retirement, he turns first to family (who are not exactly the industrious, virtuous souls he had imagined) and then to the television where John Howard, the anti-immigration Prime Minister is stirring up race hate towards a boatload of would-be migrants in the sea by which our home is girt. As Antonio makes a stand against the boat people, he divides his community, drawing out a sub-strata of the dispossessed who share the view that we need No More Boats.
The novel is told in short chapters with multiple points of view - mostly from Antonio, his wife Rose, and his adult children Francis and Clare. They offer contrasting perspectives and are, for the most part, embarrassed by Antonio. Rose dedicated her life to helping migrants. Francis hangs around with a group of migrant pot-heads and Clare develops a friendship with her Vietnamese co-worker (a boat person who arrived on a plane from Thailand). Even Antonio seems somewhat horrified by the pond-life he starts to attract - violent wasters who are far from the socialist-nationalist hard-working ideal to which Antonio aspires.
This is a great little seamy 1990s narrative of the western suburbs of Sydney. If it has a failing, it is that once the positions have been established they just sort of fizzle out. But maybe that's the point. There is not enough logic in the anti-immigration position to sustain itself. In one vignette, a politician points to lines on a graph. The red line keeps increasing, the blue line is flat. In the middle is a green line. The politician stresses the importance of following the green line. And in another one, someone asserts with a straight face that Harold Holt disappeared when swimming in the sea because he relaxed the White Australia policy. So yes, not quite enough logic to swell an uprising, but still it seems to keep a motley collection of fascist losers limping on from dog-whistle to dog-whistle, even twenty years later.
From The Wreck is the story of a 19th century shipwreck and a shape-shifting alien. Normally I like 19th century shipwreck books, but I can't recall enjoying terribly many books about shape shifting aliens. I have never come across them in between the same covers and, in truth, I don't think I ever will again.
And I have very little idea how to review it.
The premise in From The Wreck is that a ship, the Admella, goes down off the coast of South Australia. George Hills and a handful of other survivors cling to the wreckage for days, starved of food and water, waiting for rescue. As, one by one, they die, their hungry fellow travellers give in to temptation... And George forms a special bond in cannibalism with a mysterious woman who is, in fact, the alien. Back on shore, George finds himself tormented by visions and dreams of the ocean and tentacles and human flesh. He imagines that if he can find the woman from the wreck, she may be able to help him. The alien, meanwhile, is lonely and possesses George's son Henry.
The story is confusing and feels somewhat arbitrary. The characters feel somewhat underdeveloped and don't always seem to have a clear rationale for the things they do. There are scenes of early life in South Australia, but they don't quite feel three dimensional. Then, at the back of it all, there is this alien which may naturally look like a blue octopus just hanging around for years as a mark on Henry's back. I kept trying to find a metaphor in the alien, but couldn't find one.
The first two thirds have some semblance of plot building up - George's quest to find the shipwreck woman; the alien hears that there might be another shape shifting alien in America; an alcoholic woman from Sydney shows up. But then it just dissipates into chaos.
Maybe there is some key that I am missing that would unlock whatever this book is about. Maybe if someone could persuade me that it is about dispossession or identity or something. But I'm just not getting it. Clearly others are seeing more in it than me, given its inclusion on the Miles Franklin 2018 longlist.
There are some beautiful passages, there are some fizzy ideas. But it just doesn't cohere.
It’s a little known fact that during the Communist era, a small cohort of western migrants lived in the USSR. Not all were former spies; some were trade unionists and socialist activists who believed in the project and felt alienated in their homelands. And, of course, their families…
What the Light Reveals tells the story of one such family. It is the 1950s. Conrad Murphy is an Australian socialist whose name features in a Soviet document that was passed to ASIO by a Soviet double agent. He is then summoned to give evidence to the Inquiry into Soviet Espionage, at which point his life in Australia starts to unravel. He becomes practically unemployable and depends on family for handouts. His wife Ruby wants to support the family but with two young children it is not easy. The USSR offers hope for a better future.
Then the narrative switches to the early 1970s. Conrad, Ruby and the two boys are living in an apartment in Moscow. It is better than many in Moscow, but it’s not great. Conrad has a car, offered as both a freedom and a means of keeping track of him. Culturally, Conrad and Ruby are misfits – they are not trusted as Russians, and not granted the freedoms of foreigners. They are free to leave whenever they want, indeed they believe that if things go wrong they would be deported rather than prosecuted, but they have become disconnected from any life outside Russia. Conrad puts a brave face on things, but Ruby hankers after Melbourne. The boys, meanwhile, are almost completely Russian in their mannerisms, even if their names and heritage keep them apart from their classmates. This is brought into particular relief when Alex meets Sinead, an Irish student at the State University who is allowed the real freedoms of the foreigner.
The story, slowly unfolding, is tragic. The Murphys are caught in a limbo along with a handful of other western ex-pats – unsure whether to live a lie and pretend that everything is for the best, or whether to cut and run. And then family secrets and Conrad’s poor health combine to bring matters to a head.
The writing is fantastic. The evocation of the Soviet Union as a place to live, a place where people worked, studied, lived and loved is spot on. This is not a land of snow and spies, it is not a place where people are afraid to grumble. Rather, it is a place of bureaucracies and petty resentments; informants serving more as irritants than sources of terror. Although, when needed, the terror is capable of rising from the mundanity of everyday life.
What the Light Reveals is a story of wasted life, trust and mistrust, belonging and not-belonging. There are clever parallels between the Murphys’ relationship with Russia and the relationships within their own family and their tiny circle of friends and comrades. There is the tawdriness of the loyalty to ideals, embodied in a worthless badge presented to Conrad as a hero worker for his services to translating engineering manuals. The Moscow adventure has brought Conrad and Ruby absolutely nothing, and at huge human cost.
The ending, the return to Melbourne, brings sunshine and relief – the smell of barbecues and the sound of the waves lapping the bay-beach at St Kilda. The past 15 years represent an aberration, a period of statis where the world developed but the Murphys merely aged.
This is a terrific novel; the perfect length and with a perfect pace. The characters are real and flawed; the world is three dimensional; the contrasts are evoked with brilliance. It’s not so much the story – it has only one major shock – it is the way it is told that makes this such an outstanding work of fiction.