The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton

Sorry in advance – The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton is one of those books that I can’t say much about, for fear of spoilers.

It’s the story of teenager, Jaxie Clackton. Jaxie’s mum died and his relationship with his dad is violent. 

…when everyone went home after the funeral and I finished putting all them casseroles in the freezer I stood in the lounge in my good duds and the Captain sat out on the back patio drinking homebrew and rum. Arm over arm. Neither one of us said nothing. We both knew there was never gunna be anything good again.

Jaxie decides to leave, taking off across the vast saltlands of Western Australia. There he meets Fintan MacGillis, an old Irishman, on his own for very different reasons than Jaxie. What happens next changes both their lives.

Winton’s use of vernacular for the voice of Jaxie is one of the most impressive and memorable I’ve read (the last outstanding example would be Gillian Mears’s Foal’s Bread). Jaxie’s voice is relentless, hard, and crude.  And the fact that Jaxie’s internal dialogue is just as harsh as what he says aloud, enables Winton to create the tiniest chink of empathy for what is a fairly unlikable character – we know that this is a boy who has not heard many kind or loving words.

When I think of Mum now I try to remember her before she got sick. I see her out at the clothesline. Just before a summer storm… The sky was black and the paddocks the colour of bread. And the wind was up before the rain come in and Mum still had her real hair that was flying behind her. I come out on the back step …. and I run over there in me bare feet to help. But I forgot about all the prickles and bindies and doublegees so pretty soon I was hopping around like a dancing poof and we’re both of us laughing.
And I’m happy. When she reaches out for me to keep me from falling over I feel like it’s my birthday and not even the bruises up her arms can ruin it.

As always with Winton, the landscape gets top billing – this time he writes about heat, dust, salt lakes, rubble and rotting animal carcasses. And as always, I’m amazed at how he manages to put words around things that are so familiar, in a way that reads as new and inspired.

On a big moon it looked like that lake was full of water instead of dry salt. It looked like a different country that thing, a whole nother continent. Went as far as you could see, this empty white space.

There’s so much I want to say about the ending – it ties in with all of the themes about listening and being heard, that I enjoyed at Melbourne Writers Festival this year – but I’ll have to save it for discussions with people who have read the book. Instead, I’ll marvel at Winton’s ability to write about complex emotions in what seems a simple way. And, that in the final scene, Winton managed to pull the subtext together, resulting in a stunning climax that exposed big themes and even bigger emotions – loyalty, vindication, trust, and unconditional care. A thrilling end that reverberated with me for days.

4/5 The last 30 pages moved it from a 3/5 to a 4/5. Gripping.

He bit on his damper and et it like an old geezer will, like his teeth and gums were sore, like he was trying to chew sand and ball bearings. And there was something went out of his eyes. I couldn’t tell if he was relieved to hear nobody sent me or if it was the worst news of his life.

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22 responses

  1. Maybe I should rescue it from oblivion at the back of the shelf. I haven’t much liked Winton except for Cloudstreet (and even that, I didn’t like the first time I read it) but maybe I should give him another go.

    • I know a lot of people don’t like Winton and I have wondered why… too much of the same? Too ‘masculine’? Is it a style thing? I’ve enjoyed some of his books but not others (as I have with other prolific authors such as Ian McEwan and John Irving). I loved Cloudstreet and Breath but didn’t care for Dirt Music, for example. This book is different – no gentle descriptions of water or landscape, for a start – but it is a fast read with a super ending.

  2. As is appears to be emerging as a theme here, I’ve been really wary of Winton, but for no tangible reason as I’ve never read anything of his. I’m almost tempted to give this one a go though.

    • This isn’t completely representative of his style because of the use of vernacular – his other stuff is gentler. But the themes about young men coming of age are here, reimagined in the desert. My favourites of his are Cloudstreet and Breath (because of his writing about the ocean).

  3. This particular book got quite a “push” here, I remember it because the US cover is quite striking. I’d never heard of Winton before, but every press release started with “Australia’s most decorated and beloved novelist”, so I figured he had to be good. This one is on my netgalley list.

  4. I like Winton a lot, but haven’t read his last couple of books. I don’t mind that he writes about people who struggle. I like the fact that he writes a lot about men who struggle, about men’s interior selves. I learn a lot from his books about people whose lives are very different to mine.

    BTW I find the most frustrating thing about writing reviews (as against say a literary essay) is that you can’t discuss the endings – because that’s often where the final meaning is. I love that in reading groups you can. At least in all the groups I’ve ever been involved in, it’s the rule that if you haven’t read the book by the discussion, all bets are off.

    • I agree, I learn a lot from Winton. I haven’t read all of his books and probably won’t, although have been meaning to read My Island Home.

      Yes, kills me not to be able to discuss endings! In Shepherd’s Hut the ending was brilliant and meaningful. In my book group, the rule is the same – if you haven’t finished the book, too bad (those people often self-nominate for coffee and tea making to save themselves from spoilers!).

  5. One of the advantages for me of reviewing early Australian fiction is that I don’t hold back from discussing the ending. Though I don’t give everything away if I can help it. I’ll listen to this when it comes out as an audiobook. I’m not a Winton fan, he mostly writes the same boys growing up story over and over, still he is Western Australian and I’d like to see how he gets on away from the south-west and the ocean.

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