While I’ve been spending most of my reading time over the past few weeks on the ARCs which piled up during German Literature Month and January in Japan, there have been other demands on my reading time. One book I’ve been meaning to get to for a while is a present I got for my birthday last year, an Australian novel from a writer whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past, given to me by a little girl who keeps wondering why I haven’t got around to reading her present yet. Consider this my attempt to keep the peace on the home front – and read a novel originally written in English for the first time in a good while, too.
Eyrie, longlisted for last year’s Miles Franklin Award, is the latest novel from the Western-Australian writer Tim Winton. We begin one morning in a flat high up in the Fremantle sky as Tommy Keely, a middle-aged former environmental lawyer, crawls out of bed into a crushingly hot morning. With a headache that could fell an elephant (and a huge unexplained wet patch on the living room carpet), it’s clear from the onset that this is a man with some very big issues, worries which have driven him to retreat to his eyrie far above the rest of the city.
Even in a place like this, though, it’s hard to escape your past, and when he bumps into a neighbour, a woman he knew during his childhood, the first step is taken towards reconnecting with society. Gemma has her own reasons for living at the top of this tower, and one of them is her grandson, Kai, a quiet boy with some unusual traits. Keely is drawn to Gemma and becomes increasingly close to the boy too; however, he’s soon to discover that getting mixed up in other people’s affairs is a very dangerous business indeed.
Winton is one of the most famous and successful contemporary Australian writers, having won the Miles Franklin Award on four occasions, and this is the work of a writer with his own style and themes, unconcerned with writing for an audience. From the first page, he plunges into his setting, the complex part-gritty, part-gentrified town of Fremantle, just down the road from the glittering, mining-money-dependent city of Perth (or ‘Dullsville’, as it is called several times…):
“Port of Fremantle, gateway to the booming state of Western Australia. Which was, you could say, like Texas. Only it was big. Not to mention thin-skinned. And rich beyond dreaming. The greatest ore deposit in the world. The nation’s quarry. China’s swaggering enabler. A philistine giant eager to pass off its good fortune as virtue, quick to explain its shortcomings as east-coast conspiracies, always at the point of seceding from the Federation. Leviathan with an irritable bowel.”
p.5 (Penguin, 2014)
As any Australian will know, it’s a region awash with money. Which, of course, is not to say that it’s equally distributed, or that its origins are completely legitimate.
One strand of the book looks at Keely himself, a man with strong beliefs (inherited from his larger-than-life father) which have brought him to his knees. In an era of climate-change denial and mining domination, he is a relic, fighting the good fight on behalf of people and birds alike – until, that is, a fatal misjudgement leaves him abandoned and unemployable. There are definite shades here of the struggle between human warmth and neoliberalism portrayed in another modern Australian novel, Elliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, a book which also details the futility of individuals struggling against ‘progress’.
In truth, though, this forms the background of the novel; the main action concerns Keely’s growing relationship with Gemma and Kai. She’s a few years younger than Keely, taken in by his parents when she was young in an attempt to save her from the worst effects of her parents’ disastrous relationship, and Keely repeats his parents’ gesture (or error) in wanting to help:
“You’re trying to do the right thing, I know. It’s how we raised you, the both of you. But you save yourself first Tom. That’s something I do know, it’s what I’ve learnt. You save yourself, then you look to the others.” (p.289)
His mother’s words are well-meant (and prescient), but it’s too little, too late. Keely is already in well over his head, and his only choice is to sort out Gemma’s issues or go under – for good.
Eyrie is a great read, a very Australian book with a swaggering tone and an umistakeable style, making the reader feel they’ve stepped out (with Keely) into a blistering Westralian summer:
“It was hot enough to kill an asbestos sparrow. The concrete forecourt livid, the street branding, blinding, breath-sucking. Acid light plashed white underfoot, swashing wall to wall, window upon window, and he waded in it a moment tilting spastic and helpless, so suddenly porous and chalky it was all behind his eyes in an instant, fizzing within his skull until it rendered everything outside him in flashes and flickers. No gentling tones out here, only abyssal shadows or colours so saturated they looked carcinogenic.” (pp.14/5)
The language is frequently aggressive and metaphor laden, reflecting Keely’s sensitivity to the pain in his head, and the writing is saturated with Australianisms. As a reader of translated fiction, I do wonder how the British (or even American…) version reads – I’d be surprised if all of the local expressions made the cut.
I greatly enjoyed Eyrie, but I wouldn’t say that it’s my favourite Winton book (The Riders is usually the one I recommend, although Cloudstreet is regarded as his ‘classic’). The ideas are rather familiar (a man raging against society, a lower-class woman with a heart of gold etc), and there are too many strands floating about which are never really brought together. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I just felt that the ending was a little unsatisfying because of the lack of (for want of a better word) ‘closure’. What is Kai’s story? What is up with Keely’s headaches? What did happen with his sister? Withholding information from the reader is all well and good, but you can take it a little too far.
Still, I’m probably being a little unfair here. I raced through Eyrie in a few days, and it’s a book I’d definitely recommend, a great story about the iniquities of contemporary Australia, covering everything from mining to gentrification, banking to prison spells – it only needs a subplot with a dumb Prime Minister locking kids in detention centres offshore to cover the whole gamut of Aussie themes. If you want to see what life’s like in Freo today, give it a try. Just don’t forget to take your sunglasses and slap on some sunscreen – it’s bloody hot…