Over the years I have read a number of Tim Winton novels and have enjoyed most of the them. However the one that I did not finish was Cloudstreet, perhaps his best known work. This was largely because the main character annoyed me so much. I will go back to the book one day and hopefully finish reading the saga. However I really enjoyed the experience of reading The Shepherd's Hut and needed to keep reading until the end to find out what happened.
In Tim Winton's novels the Australian environment plays a major role - it is not just a setting for the action, it is a major component of the book. The Shepherd's Hut is set in Western Australia, in dry, desolate semi-desert scrub country with a large salt pan being a major feature.
It is in a small country town that we first meet Jaxie, a young teenage boy who is used to being bullied and abused. His mother has died and then one evening he arrives home to find his alcoholic father dead under his car. Jaxie decides he has no choice but to leave home and sets off on foot to find his cousin, the only person who he hopes understands him.
With few belongings and little food and water Jaxie travels until he finds the remains of a shelter where he stays for a time. Venturing further he discovers an old shepherd's hut in which an old man is living. Much of the story revolves around the relationship between Jaxie and Fintan McGillis, a former Catholic priest. It is about the art of survival as well as learning to understand oneself. Jaxie has been afraid that he may become like his abusive father. He needs to gradually understand who he really is. He is also wary and unable to fully trust Fintan. He wants to leave but also, over time, feels a responsibility towards the old man.
This work has rightly been described as a brutal book. It is set in a brutal, barren landscape but it is the language in which the book is written that really hits the reader. The story is told through Jaxion's eyes and the language is earthy, direct and full of swearing and Australian slang. But this is who the characters are and the raw language contributes to the telling of the story.
It was sometimes hard work but I am glad that I read this Australian novel.
The Shepherd's Hut reviewed by Michael McGirr