The Shep­herd’s Hut

Tim Win­ton Hamish Hamil­ton; $39.99

The Monthly (Australia) - - NOTED - noted by Richard King

“Any­thing with blood in it can prob­a­bly go bad. Like meat. And it’s the blood that makes me worry. It car­ries things you don’t even know you got.” So thinks Jaxie Clack­ton as he hides out in the Western Aus­tralian wheat­belt, cas­ing a cor­ru­gated iron shack. He’s on the run, hav­ing found his fa­ther crushed to death un­der a Toy­ota HiLux – an ac­ci­dent he imag­ines will be taken as a crime, since ev­ery­one in Monk­ton knows how mer­ci­lessly Sid Clack­ton beat his teenage son and late wife. With barely two boxes of bul­lets left for his ri­fle, and no way to pre­serve his kills, Jaxie has left camp in search of the salt lake, and it’s here he makes his dis­cov­ery – an old shep­herd’s hut with a sin­gle, strange, oc­cu­pant. The oc­cu­pant is Fin­tan MacGil­lis, a priest har­bour­ing a dark and dan­ger­ous se­cret. Fin­tan has sub­sisted in the bush for eight years. He grows ve­g­ies and traps wild goats, and is brought pro­vi­sions twice a year as part of an ob­scure ar­range­ment with his church. He will change Jaxie’s life, and Jaxie his – each act­ing as shep­herd to the other’s lost soul, or lamb whose blood will wash the other clean. The Shep­herd’s Hut brings to­gether many of Tim Win­ton’s favoured themes: ado­les­cence, mas­culin­ity, the WA land­scape. It is a story of redemption, but one in which the au­thor and his char­ac­ters stare un­blink­ingly at the hu­man an­i­mal – re­deemed not in spite of its an­i­mal­ity but through it. “I am, for all my sins, the thing it­self, not just the idea,” Fin­tan tells Jaxie as the moon rises (“like the wafer”) over the salt lake. Meat and blood are the mo­tifs of the book, and prompt the reader to con­sider how the spir­i­tual in­heres in the crea­t­u­ral. The book’s de­noue­ment com­bines a spec­tac­u­lar act of vi­o­lence with a mo­ment of pro­found spir­i­tual in­sight. Here, as else­where, Win­ton seems de­ter­mined to let his Chris­tian­ity speak, clearly and with­out apol­ogy. Of course, in many writ­ers’ hands such sym­bol­ism would seem heavy-handed. But Win­ton is such a master of voice that he is able to keep the el­e­ments in bal­ance. Jaxie is the novel’s sole nar­ra­tor, his mouthy pat­ter a ripe con­coc­tion of sen­tence frag­ments, lo­cal ex­pres­sions and out­ra­geous oaths. (“To live you gotta be hard, I know that. But no­body wants to be a dead­set cunt. That’s just not fuck­ing de­cent.”) The ver­nac­u­lar serves as a coun­ter­weight to the themes, which are all the more af­fect­ing for be­ing so an­chored. Though painful to read at times, this is a very beau­ti­ful novel – a vi­sion of the In­car­na­tion set among sam­phire and salt­bush. “Any­thing with blood in it can prob­a­bly go bad.” Or good, as the case may be.

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