April 2018

Noted

Tim Winton’s ‘The Shepherd’s Hut’

By Richard King
One of Australia’s most acclaimed novelists offers a painful and beautiful story of redemption

“Anything with blood in it can probably go bad. Like meat. And it’s the blood that makes me worry. It carries things you don’t even know you got.”

So thinks Jaxie Clackton as he hides out in the Western Australian wheatbelt, casing a corrugated iron shack. He’s on the run, having found his father crushed to death under a Toyota HiLux – an accident he imagines will be taken as a crime, since everyone in Monkton knows how mercilessly Sid Clackton beat his teenage son and late wife. With barely two boxes of bullets left for his rifle, and no way to preserve his kills, Jaxie has left camp in search of the salt lake, and it’s here he makes his discovery – an old shepherd’s hut with a single, strange, occupant.

The occupant is Fintan MacGillis, a priest harbouring a dark and dangerous secret. Fintan has subsisted in the bush for eight years. He grows vegies and traps wild goats, and is brought provisions twice a year as part of an obscure arrangement with his church. He will change Jaxie’s life, and Jaxie his – each acting as shepherd to the other’s lost soul, or lamb whose blood will wash the other clean.

The Shepherd’s Hut (Hamish Hamilton; $39.99) brings together many of Tim Winton’s favoured themes: adolescence, masculinity, the WA landscape. It is a story of redemption, but one in which the author and his characters stare unblinkingly at the human animal – redeemed not in spite of its animality but through it. “I am, for all my sins, the thing itself, not just the idea,” Fintan tells Jaxie as the moon rises (“like the wafer”) over the salt lake. Meat and blood are the motifs of the book, and prompt the reader to consider how the spiritual inheres in the creatural. The book’s denouement combines a spectacular act of violence with a moment of profound spiritual insight. Here, as elsewhere, Winton seems determined to let his Christianity speak, clearly and without apology.

Of course, in many writers’ hands such symbolism would seem heavy-handed. But Winton is such a master of voice that he is able to keep the elements in balance. Jaxie is the novel’s sole narrator, his mouthy patter a ripe concoction of sentence fragments, local expressions and outrageous oaths. (“To live you gotta be hard, I know that. But nobody wants to be a deadset cunt. That’s just not fucking decent.”) The vernacular serves as a counterweight to the themes, which are all the more affecting for being so anchored.

Though painful to read at times, this is a very beautiful novel – a vision of the Incarnation set among samphire and saltbush. “Anything with blood in it can probably go bad.” Or good, as the case may be.

Richard King

Richard King is a freelance writer based in Fremantle. He is the author of On Offence. His website is The Bloody Crossroads

In This Issue

Tutu Bob of Kings Cross

A local tour guide proves there is still plenty of life in the Cross

Image of David Wotherspoon

Sick on the inside

Our corrective services struggle to cope with the mental health requirements of inmates

Image of Marshall Islands, 1946

Nuclear brinkmanship and the doomsday scenario

The risk posed by the global weapons complex is much worse than you know

Image of Jeremy Heimans

Jeremy Heimans: the up-start

The co-founder of GetUp! might be the most influential Australian in the world


Online exclusives

Image of Oliver Twist. Image supplied.

Oliver Twist’s ‘Jali’

With quiet charisma and gentle humour, the Rwandan-Australian performer weaves together vivid autobiographical stories in this one-person show

Image of South Australia Premier Steven Marshall addressing the media during a press conference in Adelaide, August 24, 2021. Image © Morgan Sette / AAP Images

Marshall law

Premier Steven Marshall claimed South Australia was “COVID-ready” when the state opened borders just as Omicron was emerging, but it now faces the same issues as the eastern states

Image of Lisa McCune, Zahra Newman and Peter Carroll appearing on stage in Girl from the North Country. Image © Daniel Boud.

‘Girl from the North Country’

Weaving Bob Dylan songs into a story of Depression-era hardship, Conor McPherson’s musical speaks to the broken America of today

Still from ‘The Worst Person in the World’, showing Anders Danielsen Lie as Aksel and Renate Reinsve as Julie. Image courtesy Everett Collection.

‘The Worst Person in the World’

Renate Reinsve is exceptional in Joachim Trier’s satisfying Nordic rom-com