Australia is a big country. But you knew that already.
Not that many people. You probably knew that too.
It’s a fairly new country. Common knowledge.
All those things together, however, contribute to a unique psyche; a mixture of strength and confidence blended with a sense of respect for nature and wide spaces and a mistrust of the ancient; a sense of belonging but a certainty that things are different from the way they are in the north.
No wonder they drink lots of beer.
This unique perspective can also be artistically productive though, and Australian authors can produce great novels, whether they are set in the vast expanses of the Outback, the sun-kissed coastal cities of the east or west, or far away in Asia or Europe, detailing the troubles of Australians abroad. Tim Winton, a native of far-flung Western Australia, is well known for his tales of life and troubles in and around Perth, but ‘The Riders’ takes its protagonists on a rollercoaster ride around Europe, a continent that is both familiar and exotic, accommodating the visitors in good times and spitting them out when things get tough.
This book is brilliant.
Scully, an Australian labourer, is in Ireland, fixing up an old house which his wife, Jennifer, decided to buy on a whim after the family’s wanderings throughout Europe. While Jennifer and their daughter, Billie, fly back to Perth to tie up the loose ends in their old life back in Australia, Scully prepares for his new life. However, on arriving at the airport to greet his girls, he is shattered to find that only his daughter gets off the plane…
This event is the catalyst for a mad dash all over Europe in search of a woman who seems to have disappeared without a trace (and who obviously does not want to be found). Scully drags his poor daughter, cold, sleep-deprived, wounded and traumatised (initially unable to speak from the shock of what has happened) from Ireland to Greece to Italy to France to Holland, desperately chasing the faint trail his absent wife may, or may not, have left behind. In the process of this Odyssean journey, the father and daughter begin to change roles; the strong labourer clutching his frail daughter to his chest becomes confused, injured and drunk while his daughter, physically resembling her father but with the intelligence and adaptability of her mother, gradually comes out of her protective shell and begins to take over responsibility as Scully sinks deeper and deeper into desperation. By the end of the novel, she is the adult of the two, taking control of the finances and making decisions for the both of them.
From the start of the book, the omens are not good. Back in Ireland, Scully sees a crowd of ghostly horsemen in the night, the ‘Riders’ of the title. These harbingers of ill fortune give us the first clue of what is in store for the Australians, and when Billie sees some young boys racing beside the train during their travels in Italy, Scully reacts as if they were the same spectral riders as he saw before. In Mythology, the tradition of the Wild Hunt, known throughout Europe, was thought to warn of doom, destruction, war and also inclement weather. This latter theme is a constant throughout the novel; the constantly moving family seem to be plagued by bad weather, from the treacherous boat trip in the Greek Islands to the wintry weather (and watery floors…) of Amsterdam. In addition, there is a theme of highs and lows which appears in most of the locations. Scully looks for truth and happiness in the Greek mountains and the bell towers of Notre Dame (Billie, with her comic version of Hugo’s famous story, constantly compares her father to the famous, misunderstood Hunchback), but the realities of life continue to drag him down to the underpasses and metro stations of Paris, and the police station basement and submarine resting place in Amsterdam. By the end, he really has hit rock bottom.
The front cover of my edition contains a quote from the New Yorker magazine saying ‘The curse of this haunting book is that you read it too fast’, which is incredibly apt; the first time I read ‘The Riders’, probably about five years ago now, I read and read and read until I had got to the last page. Winton sets up the story in Ireland and then sucks you in with his writing until you experience the frantic pace of Scully’s desperate flight; his mad dash becomes your own personal race to the end of the book, and when you finish, Billie and her father are not the only ones left feeling drained and in need of recovery! This time, I was able to take it a bit more slowly, but only a little; the story still pulled at me, requiring me to keep going for just a little longer, just as Scully is pulled from city to city in the need to chase what may be just ahead, but also to escape the mess he has just left behind.
I need a drink just from writing about it.
At the end of it all, when the chasing is over, and we are back in Scully’s old new house, it is difficult to reflect and understand the reasons for it all. There is a deliberate ambiguity in the rationale for what occurred, and it is this which is the scariest part of the story. Through Scully, as he searches his memories, trying to find something which would explain his wife’s disappearance, the reader is given various glimpses of the family’s past life and possible reasons for Jennifer’s decision, but nothing becomes clear, and the haunting truth of the matter is that this is something that could happen to anyone at any time. Is it possible to know anyone well enough to be sure that they will always be there and that they won’t vanish into the night? Something to think about while you fail to sleep at night…
Australia. Lots of Kangaroos. Kylie Minogue. Incredible writing.
Yes, OK, and lots of beer.