The Shepherd's Hutby Tim Winton Published 12 Mar 2018
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For years Jaxie Clackton has dreaded going home. His beloved mum is dead, and he wishes his dad was too, until one terrible moment leaves his life stripped to nothing. No one ever told Jaxie Clackton to be careful what he wishes for.
And so Jaxie runs. There’s just one person in the world who understands him, but to reach her he’ll have to cross the vast saltlands of Western Australia. It is a place that harbours criminals and threatens to kill those who haven't reckoned with its hot, waterless vastness. This is a journey only a dreamer - or a fugitive - would attempt.
Fierce and lyrical, The Shepherd's Hut is a story of survival, solitude and unlikely friendship. Most of all it is about what it takes to keep hope alive in a parched and brutal world.
"The Shepherd's Hut" Reviews
Even though it was years ago, I remember when I first discovered Tim Winton . I would frequently spend part of a Sunday afternoon at my favorite bookstore which sadly is no longer in existence. I would browse the shelves not looking for anything in particular and I picked up Cloudstreet because I was attracted to the title. I bought it, read it and loved it . After that I read Dirt Music and Breath. I was drawn to read this because of my enjoyment of those novels. If you haven’t read Winton, I would recommend starting with one of his earlier works. If you are a Winton fan, I definitely recommend it.
This is the raw and rough to read story of Jaxie Clackton, a teenage boy on the run through the brutal and wild outback, not for anything he’s done but for what’s been done to him. He’s on the run from his miserable young life of physical abuse and feeling like the outcast. The first part of the book, a profile in loneliness is rather sad as Jaxie recounts his past. He’s a pitiful soul, in spite of the rough talk and vulgarity . He has no family or friends , only the fear of being caught for something he didn’t do and the hope that he could get to the girl he loves, his cousin. He’s tough but vulnerable when he crosses paths with Fintan MacGillis, an ex priest, living a secluded life in the wild. It’s this unlikely friendship that impacts Jaxie on his way forward.
I have to admit that I didn’t quite get all of the slang and had to google a few words if I couldn’t guess the meaning. Some of the more profane were easy to guess. If you are sensitive to this, it may not be for you. Another warning - there is killing of animals for food but there is one scene of animal cruelty that was hard to read. In spite of these reservations, I thought it was a moving story of a boy’s journey to manhood.
I received an advanced copy of this book from Farrah, Straus and Giroux through NetGalley.
Jackson "Jaxie" Clackton, 16 years old, was continually abused by his dad, Sid Clackton. Clackton, master butcher in the town of Monkton, used Jaxie as a punching bag. Jaxie was a bad tempered school delinquent nicknamed "Jaxie Horsemeat" by his peers. In turn, he enjoyed punching students for ill-treating him. Jaxie was currently nursing a black eye given to him during one of Clackton's drunken rages. Wishing and hoping his dad would die, imagine his shock finding his father crushed under a car, Apparently, the vehicle slipped off a high-lift jack in the shed. Fear of being blamed for his father's death caused Jaxie to quickly leave home. He headed north for Magnet, approximately 300 kilometers from Monkton. His meager supplies included an Igloo jug, a rifle with ammo, four oranges and a pair of binoculars.
Jaxie knew how to hunt and butcher, however, all he had with him for butchering was a butter knife. His trip plan was as follows: keep his "sh**" together, rest, find water, and get to Magnet to see girlfriend Lee, the one person he felt connected to. Soon, his Igloo jug was pretty near empty, his bad eye throbbed and his rifle was getting mighty heavy. His trek across the vast Australian Outback was brutal and unforgiving. He must replenish his water supply, and soon. Finally, he happened upon the hut of Fintan MacGinnis, a singing, loquacious Irishman who claimed that his abode, in the middle of nowhere, was his refuge as well as exile. Fintan, a mysterious solitary man encouraged Jaxie to stay for a while.
Two souls, one starting life's journey while the other's journey winding down, are both damaged individuals. Was any human connection possible? The harshness and brutalities of life were ever present in this novel, be they the unforgiving land or the cruelty of one's fellow man. The colorful, vernacular language definitely gave "The Shepherd's Hut" a gritty, hardscrabble feel. As a reader unfamiliar with the writing of Tim Winton, I was unaware that he is one of Australia's most acclaimed authors. "The Shepherd's Hut" was an awesome and excellent introduction to Winton's literary gems! I highly recommend this book!
Thank you Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Net Galley for the opportunity to read and review "The Shepherd's Hut".
It is a big event in the Australian publishing world whenever Tim Winton comes up with a new book. This highly anticipated novel didn’t disappoint. The more I think about it, the more I’m impressed. I mean, I shouldn’t be, because it’s Tim Freakin’ Winton. Every author has the right to come up with duds now and then. You probably heard people-in-the-know bemoaning the dying literary novel etc. It may be so, but don’t tell that to the many people who buy Tim Winton’s novels. Case in point, a few weeks after its release, this is still in the top 10 bestseller list.
On the surface, The Sheperd’s Hut is a simple novel about an abused fifteen-year-old, Jaxie Clackton, fleeing his hometown. He thinks the police is after him, so he hides in the outback, although he’s unprepared. This is the solitary walkabout of a white teenager, on the path to adulthood.
Jaxie’s is a story of survival, both spiritual and physical. He's such an interesting bloke. To be honest, when I heard this was a first person POV novel, I feared I won’t like it, especially given my previous experience with much loved Australian novels which also featured kids/teenagers (Jasper Jones, The Choke). So, I didn’t expect to be so taken with Jaxie, to care so much.
I must applaud Winton for having the audacity to use the language he did, although if anyone can get away with it, it’s him. The language is rough, Australian slang and expletives heavy – but it felt authentic. In spite of the lower class language in use, Winton succeded to write a very atmospheric novel. And all this about the outback, which is mostly dry and flat.
The novel has only two protagonists, Jaxie and the old, Irish recluse he meets in the outback. Their relationship was interesting and unexpected. Winton steered clear from sentimentality, I admire that a great deal.
The Sheperd’s Hut is a masterfully crafted novel, unique, with unforgettable characters and it's quintessentially Australian. In my view, this novel has the makings of an Australian classic novel, just like Cloudstreet.
This novel goes towards my Australian Author Challenge on www.bookloverbooksreviews.com.
Brutal. That is the word that best describes Tim Winton’s new novel, The Shepherd’s Hut. Brutal. I felt bruised and winded on finishing it. Parched and dusty. I stared around me and the familiar was unfamiliar. The valued, valueless.
Jaxie Clackton is a speck on the huge expanse of the WA desert. He is on the run from the law. The outcast’s outcast just desperate to find the one person who really gets him.
And that’s all I want to tell you. The rest you can find out for yourself. And you will find out because you will read it. Everyone will be reading it. This book is set to be an Australian classic.
Another classic, that is. Because Tim Winton has already written Cloudstreet, Dirt Music, Breath and the others. And we come back to Tim Winton because there is always something true in what he writes – a truth that can’t be blurted out or rolled into a neat little aphorism, but has to be felt or experienced through the telling. He is Australia’s truth teller and The Shepherd’s Hut is truth at its most brutal.
The truth is I’ve been reluctant to pick up another Tim Winton book, I tried reading Cloudstreet back in my early 20’s and only managed a third of the book before abandoning it, so for me I wasn’t overly enthusiast about picking this book up. But I’m sure glad I did. This felt different to Cloudstreet as the writing here feels raw, intense and brutal it’s a story that wasn’t easy to read but I was compelled nevertheless. The Australian remote bush setting and the language was used effectively to draw me into Jaxies’ story. The language is as rough as Jaxie himself, but it’s also it’s charm if you can get past the Aussie vernacular, it is not at all diluted, non Australian readers might struggle!
I wasn’t sure where the story was headed but I was invested until the last section where it sort of fell off and ended quite abruptly. It’s clear that Tim Winton is a writer with immense talent so I’m pleased that this book cemented my faith in him again. I might even polish off Cloudstreet finally...It was a solid 4 stars until the rushed ending.
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. Sometimes I wonder if that nasty meanness is in me too, like he’s passed it on. Does that mean I’m gunna be that way? To Lee? And our own kids ... thinking like that puts the wind up me. To live you gotta be hard, I know that.
I was drawn to this book, my first by this (twice Booker shortlisted) author, by an intriguing excerpt in The Guardian from a speech he gave while promoting the book, one in which he sets out clearly his interest in exploring the topic of toxic masculinity and it's poisonous influence on boys in turn marginalised by society.
The book is about one such boy Jaxie, who lives in a small Western Australian twin with his mother and physically abusive father - whose own actions and character it is hinted come from wartime traumas witnessed in Vietnam or Korea.
All the mechanisms which should protect Jaxie against the abuse fail him: institutional - his school are focused on dealing with the symptoms of the abuse as they emerge in Jamie's violent and delinquent behaviour (the passing on of the toxicity) and have no interest in the causes; societal - his father's friendship with the police chief of the small town causes his neighbours to turn a blind eye and deaf ear; familial - Jaxie long assumed his mother's actions, even her unwillingness to leave his father, are focused on protecting him, but after a pivotal row one Christmas (when his father discovers his clandestine physical relationship with his cousin Lee) he realises even his mother will not protect him; his cousin is forbidden contact and his mother soon succumbs to cancer cementing his sense of abandonment.
All of this is recounted in flashback, the actual narrative of the novel beginning when Jaxie stumbles across his father's dead body, crushed under the car he was working on, and convinced he will be accused of engineering the death, decides to flee to the deserted outback, with an eventual I'll thought through plan to get to and elope with his cousin, hundreds of miles North.
His father was a butcher and the tracking, survival and butchering skills Jaxie has picked up as part of his poisonous inheritance just about serve to keep him alive.
At a pivotal point he decides to venture to a salt plain as he needs a preservation mechanism for the meat he is hunting and there stumbles across another person living in the wilds - Fintan, an Irish priest, seemingly placed in a rough shepherds hut by his church as some form of part punishment/part isolation for some only ever hInted at actions he committed and atrocities (perhaps anti-communist massacres) he witnessed.
Jaxie, perhaps for the first time, being given the benefit of the doubt by an adult, teaches an uneasy truce with Fintan and the two live in close proximity.
Thing is, this old dude couldna known that. He just rolled the dice, didn’t he? He wondered if I was a civilized man, like he said. Then he bet his life on it. But that didn’t mean I could trust him. A bloke that doesn’t shoot you on sight, a man who offers you a feed, he could still be the one puts you in to the cops.
Both elements of the Fintan character as an Irish priest are important. The Irish / Australian link features in the Wild Colonial Boy, an Irish-Aussie ballad that Fintan songs when Jaxie first meets him and in their terrible closing encounter and one which could have been an alternate title for this book.
Religion, faith, redemption, death, justice, sacrifice, good and evil all feature heavily in the book - as Fintan shares something of his life and worldview and gradually allows Jaxie to re examine his own.
Flawed families are also important - both Jaxie and Fintan simultaneously abandoned by and hugely resentful of their family (the Catholic church for the latter) but also finding in it their only sustenance (physical for Fintan, emotional for Daxie) that ultimately allows them to continue.
A sense of place is vital to this novel. Unlike the typical Western Australian coastal settings of Winton’s novels, this is set in the desolate salt planes and old gold mines of the state. A location Winton has said he had always wanted to use as a setting for a novel but one rich with symbolism for his thesis on the crisis of masculinity.
Referring back to the speech above, the desolation of abandoned gold mines and prospector huts stands in for the way traditional masculinity has been justifiably hollowed out, but not replenished with any new sustainable form of male identity:
We’ve scraped our culture bare of ritual pathways to adulthood. There are lots of reasons for having clear-felled and burnt our own traditions since the 1960s, and some of them are very good reasons. But I’m not sure what we’ve replaced them with. We’ve left our young people to fend for themselves.
And the harsh poisoned salt mines for the toxicity of what currently stands as modern masculinity
What are we left with? The sly first beer your uncle slips you. The 18th birthday party where the keg is the icon. Maybe the B&S ball, if you live in the bush. First drink, first root, first bog-lap in your mum’s Corolla. Call me a snob, but that strikes me as pretty thin stuff. This, surely, is cultural impoverishment. And in such a prosperous country. To my mind, that’s salt rising to the surface, poisoning the future.
The book is recounted in the first person by Jaxie, whose speech is reproduced by Winton raw, salted (just as Jaxie salts his meat) with Aussie expletives and slang (although nothing an English reader would not understand immediately - Ute, VB, Abo) - I had originally used the word unfiltered, but actually it becomes clear that the book is in fact told as remembered by Jaxie later and explicitly filtered through and altered by the shift in his worldview from his encounter with Fintan.
Fintan's speech (as remembered by Jaxie) is littered with Irish (i particularly enjoyed "look at you with your orangemans stare") and biblical allusions (I noted phrases from Proverbs, Daniel, Ecclesiastes, 1 Samuel, John).
The book reminded me of Cormac McCarthy's the road and follows I think in the tradition of Hucklebery Finn - a book Winton lead with in a recent interview when asked to list his favourite books of all time. In the following question, asked to identify the last good book he read, Winton plumped for Jon McGregor, not Reservoir 13 though (despite describing it as great) but Even The Dogs - and ultimately the two books have much in common: powerful but uncomfortable reads, confronting difficult elements in their society, alluding to the aftermath of active military service in creating those elements, but acting as an urgent plea for readers not to judge the actions and dates of those elements, but simply to start to try and understand and engage with them.
My thanks to Farrar, Straus and Giroux for an ARC by Netgalley.