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The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton

Tim Winton’s latest novel is a rough as guts revelation. Not for the faint hearted and certainly not for anyone who objects to their fiction peppered with expletives.

‘The Shepherd’s Hut’ is a realistic look at life in the roughest of small Australian towns. Jaxie Clackton is seventeen and regularly beaten by his drunken step-father. He is already working in a butcher’s shop where he has become familiar with blood and guts. His mother is dead, but used to be on the end of many beatings herself, holding onto a harmful relationship only for the sake of her son.

In the first short chapter we find Jaxie in a Jeep, speeding down a highway with a sense of freedom and elation. The rest of the book is the long involved story of how he came to be in that place, with a gun on the back seat, eating a warm chop from a tin plate. That first chapter makes little sense initially, when you have no context, but if you read it again once you have finished the book you will see how many little clues it contains about what is to come and about Jaxie’s state of mind.

I really enjoyed this novel. The storyline is powerful, but also thoughtful. Jaxie’s life has been hard. With the loss of his mother, his only family is the man who beats him and with the step-father’s best mate being the town cop, Jaxie has few places to turn for help. He is a very real character who has a good deal of self awareness. He knows people don’t like him, that he can be a trouble-maker prone to flying off the handle. Who can blame him. But he does have a purpose. There is Lee, the girl he loves and has been told to stay away from. The cousin who lives up the coast and so that is always the place he wants to reach. Lee is always in his thoughts, even after his phone dies and he can no longer see her picture.

One of the things that I admire about Tim Winton’s writing is the sense of place that he is able to inject into his work. He knows the landscape, and so as we pass through it we will hear the birds and be told the names of trees and bushes, those that are prickly and those that are good for making fires. None of this is forced, it just makes the writing feel natural. In ‘The Shepherd’s Hut’ we encounter the wide expanses of the salt pans with a white crust that sticks to your boots and a shimmering heat that can make piles of rocks look like dancing men.

Jaxie is on the run from a crime that he didn’t commit, but which he knows he will be blamed for. Everyone knows why he would have done it. His job as a butcher has equipped him with some skills that will be useful when it comes to feeding himself. What he is not so well equipped for dealing with is an old recluse he stumbles across living out in the wilderness. The old fella has water, something that is in short supply out on the edge of the salt plans.

This is a great addition to a body of work that already contains classics such as ‘Cloudstreet’ and ‘Dirt Music’.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Published by Hamish Hamilton, RRP $45 (in hardback)


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