IN A scuzzy township in Western Australia, 15-year-old Jaxie Clackton wishes his brutal drunk of a father was dead — until he finds his dad’s body in the garage under a pick-up truck. Then, he fears that he’s in trouble. “They’ll say I kicked the jack out from under the roo bar and crushed his head like a pig melon. It all points to me.”
Grabbing all he can carry, he sets off on foot northwards, towards sun-scorched wilderness. His mother having previously died of cancer, he is now utterly alone. His desperate aim is to locate his true love, hundreds of miles away: the only person who has ever fully understood him.
Tim Winton’s ten novels are earthed in the Australian landscape, and his characters speak in the salty vernacular of the land.
Here, he has created two extraordinary literary figures. The first is Jaxie, the imaginatively foul-mouthed, teenage cynic whose damaging life experience makes him believe that the world is out to get him. But beneath this carapace is a lost boy, longing for love, and some kind of peace.
On his flight — hidden among the outback scrub, in a corrugated-iron shed, the eponymous shepherd’s hut — Jaxie stumbles across the book’s second vivid figure, Fintan MacGill: an elderly, disgraced priest, who has been marooned to serve penance. His former transgressions are unspecified, though they have nothing to do with abuse.
Where Jaxie is taciturn and monosyllabic, the priest is overpoweringly voluble. While Jaxie is exercised by the profane and the particular, Fintan is enthralled, like some Desert Father, by the sacred and universal. The eccentric relationship between these two exiles is the beating heart of the book.
As ever in Winton’s work there is another character. Place. There is a giant salt lake near their encampment: “A place so empty a fella’s thoughts come back from it as echoes.” A spiral of standing stones, placed by aboriginal people in antiquity, gives the site a sense of eternity. The old priest says: “Everything that has ever happened here is still present now . . . it says to me: Here I am, son, still here. I was here before the likes of you and yours were born. Before you even drew breath, I am.”
But this is not a novel composed of campfire philosophical discourse. It has the pace and jeopardy of a thriller. The health and life of Jaxie and Fintan are under threat, and there are decisions to make. Jaxie’s sense of mission drives the narrative on. It’s difficult, and dark, but a hugely invigorating read: as good a novel as Winton has ever written, which is saying something. Hopeful, too — though the grace is spoken in four-letter words.
The Revd Malcolm Doney is a writer, broadcaster, and Anglican priest.
The Shepherd’s Hut
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