Unlikely desert duo investigate the possibilities of empathy

Alex Bligh reviews The Shepherd's Hut by Tim Winton. Published by Penguin Random House.

Fans of Tim Winton and new readers alike will delight in his eminently readable and fast-paced new novel The Shepherd’s Hut.

Told from the point of view of outcast white working-class teenager Jaxie Clackton, the novel traces his escape from fictional small-town Monkton, Western Australia where he has suffered an abusive upbringing. His father is a violent alcoholic who runs a local butchery; his mother downtrodden and voiceless, a trapped battered woman.

Determined to start a new life, Jaxie uses the impetus provided by a harrowing turn of events to finally get out of town and begin his quest to reconnect with his female first-cousin Lee. Lee harks from Mount Magnet, an actual place further north in Western Australia and is the one shining light in Jaxie’s life.

Once Jaxie leaves Monkton, the novel becomes a tale of survival in the harsh landscape, a setting that seemingly elides the distinction between the actions of humans and beasts. Jaxie is faced with obstacles of all sorts - heat, dehydration, distance, hunger - the novel is teeming with descriptions of the sounds, eeriness, illusions and beauty of the natural environment. While traversing  salt lakes, valleys and gum-tree bush, Jaxie’s internal monologue minutely dissects his chaotic life, trying to make sense of it. This continual analysis tensely thrums through the novel.

Jaxie eventually stumbles across a shepherd’s hut next to the picturesque inland salt lakes,  inhabited by elderly Irish priest  Fintan MacGillas. At this point the plot twists complexly into the unlikely friendship that develops between the two, despite Jaxie’s fear, paranoia and stereotypical prejudices. Contrary to Jaxie’s internal musings, Fintan continually chats conversationally and melodically. Winton’s interweaving of the two characters’ distinctive  dialogues dramatically draws you into their  clash of cultures.

Jaxie and Fintan are in hiding; from society; and in one way or another, from each other. They duck and weave as they try to tease out the other’s story. Ultimately, this book depicts what it means to really know and care about another deeply, even if you don’t know all the sordid facts of their life.

The Shepherd’s Hut displays a great insight into the intricacies of masculinity, the perils of taboo and the strength of secrecy. Despite the coarseness of language; the depths of empathy that Winton displays towards his broken characters makes the novel soar above the fetid realities it depicts.

- Alex Bligh is a Dunedin lawyer.

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