“One night in November, another that had somehow become morning while she sat there, Georgie Jutland looked up to see her pale and furious face reflected in the window.”
THE best place to read this might be on the new BA direct flight to Perth from London. Seventeen hours sounds about right to cover the 469 pages that delve deep into the psyche of the Australian wilds. You need a bit of head space. This is a novel in the grand tradition. The poet of Perth, soothsayer of the surf and the shanty, outrider in the outback, Winton’s economy with words is deceptive. He moves his narrative along with great long strides. It can be a bit of head turner going back to your own everyday. Western Austalia’s rough hewn coast broods almost as much as the miscreants of White Point. And it gets fiercer as we travel north.
Winton is as rooted in the territory as some of the better known Irish writers are fond of their home towns in western Ireland. A clue:
“A moment of unscripted action in White Point. You had to go and see.”
The local fishermen are riding the crest of the rock lobster boom. The language is as craggy as you imagine them to be, as rough as guts, there was something shonky about it. The town was a personality junkyard. Descriptions are fast and vivid:
“Yogi Behr came out wrapped in a Simpsons towel. He was small and round and, so dressed, he was a potato burst from its jacket”.
Winton’s style is to have the effect first and the cause filled in later by way of conversation or flashback, like a painter working backwards. From the breaking waves of the town rises up a relationship of troubled partners, each with pasts. Each also trying to fit into this rough, untamed country which rises up from the pages as much a personality itself:
“These ranges look to him like some dormant creature whose stillness is only momentary, as though the sunblasted, dusty hide of the palce might shudder and shake itself off, rise to its bowed and saurian feet and stalk away at any moment”.
White Point town politics seethe, molten lava beneath the surface.
This book lost out to the easier cartoon conceit in the Life of Pi by Yann Martel in the 2002 Man Booker prize, but there are similarities in feel. The tiger in a boat is replaced by Georgie Jutland. Here also are journeys at sea. Pi says: “My suffering left me sad and gloomy”, well here are other sufferings in the dirt and shoreline mud. This has the social grounding, retarded realism, edge, rather than Yann’s metaphysical madness.
At heart we have an emotional manhunt, shades even of Mad Max, a modern western but in the background lurk current (or what would have been prophetic) themes of Trumpism, of gentrification, of mindfulness, of people on the cusp, a road crash not far away.
This is Winton’s 27th published work. It shows. His men are tossed like their own boats on tempestuos circumstance, his women, those not subsumed by the toughness of the place, like Georgie have history, backgrounds, moods suddenly defined when she becomes an obsessive cook. Emotions transmute subtley into the descriptions of the very land itself. A masterpiece really.