I’m obviously not a Man Booker Prize judge, and haven’t had to read 150 books, but I’ve gallivanted through several contemporary novels in an attempt to reconnect with the culture. (I decided at some point that MasterChef and Dancing with the Stars were not enough.)
The Australian writer Tim Winton’s new novel, Eyrie, is a literary page-turner. From the beginning, his spare, tough prose swept me away. The hero, Tom Keely, an environmentalist activist, has been unemployed for a year, his reputation slashed by a powerful politician. The divorced, impoverished Keely has moved from a lovely middle-class house to a hideous highrise. Though we hear about his fury over the impact of the mining industry and his concern for endangered birds, we don’t learn much about his former high-profile work. That’s because he has fallen several class es, despite his mother’s attempts to help him. Nowadays Keely drinks, does drugs, and blacks out.
And then he meets Gemma, a middle-aged woman he knew as a child, who, it turns out, is his neighbor. Winton’s description of her is merciless and stark, though Keely finds her sexy.
The woman snorted and fished for something in her bag. She’d been pretty once. In her denim skirt and sleeveless top she seemed puffy, almost bruised. Her dirty-blonde hair was dry and she had the kippered complexion of the lifelong smoker, but any man would still look twice.
Through narrative and dialogue, Winton evokes a vivid picture of Gemma, who, it soon becomes clear, lives just barely on the right side of the law. She is only a few steps above hooking.
In ’71, Keely’s mother and father, devout Christian converts, took care of Gemma and her sister during a rough period in their childhood. Gemma has had a rough life: her daughter is in prison for drugs, her son-in-law is a crazed junkie, and she takes care of her six-year-old grandchild, Kai, a solemn boy with terrifying dreams.
Keely, who undoubtedly should have had children, becomes involved especially with Kai. On nights when Kai is frightened to be alone when Gemma goes to work, Keely baby-sits. This grim child loves to play Scrabble, but draws terrifying pictures and is clearly disturbed.
The book is not all about Keely’s downward fall, though. Winton’s description of Fremantle, an unglamorous city near Perth, fascinates me. I love city neighborhoods.
Even in small things Keely lives on the edge. Instead of walking to a tourist neighborhood for good coffee, he goes to Bub’s, a small greasy neighborhood cafe where I for one would never drink the coffee. Bub is kind, but not too personal, and gives him drinks for his hangovers. Bub knows who Kelly is, but never mentions the past.
Bub never mentioned his public blow-up. He had the discretion or perhaps the indifference of a bloke who’d torched a few bridges himself. Today he seemed particularly harassed. The Sunday crowd required a different level of energy–a lot of fluffy milk to make, for one–and he looked short-handed
When Keely takes a job there as a dishwasher at Bub’s, we really know he’s going down. The trouble is that he chooses it.
This grim book takes a grimmer turn as we see Keely, who is in many ways a lost soul, determined to save Gemma and Kai, and squandering his own last chances. This is a road we hate to see anyone go down.
Usually you try to get the hell out of these neighborhoods if you’re someone like Keely.
Sad, chilling, and very well-written.
Winton, an Australian writer, has won a number of awards. He won the Miles Franklin Award four times for Shallows (1984), Cloudstreet (1992), Dirt Music (2002) and Breath (2009). He been shortlisted twice for the Man Booker Prize, first in 1995 for The Riders and thenin 2002 for Dirt Music. And, indeed, I’m surprised Eyrie didn’t make the longlist this year, but then I’ve read none of the contenders except Karn Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.
Mainstream publishers, at least in the U.S., seldom publish novels about environmental issues, and certainly not about activists who take one misstep and get blasted.
If I were on the Man Booker Panel, I’d have pushed Eyrie for the longlist.
I will be writing about more new books very soon, so brace yourself.