One of my undergraduate students says Tim Winton is her ‘pony-tailed prince’ and gets very persnickety if anyone should criticise her Tim. I have always felt affection for our Tim too. It’s a special thing on our far flung Western shore to have a writer wandering amongst us with such a lofty reputation here and abroad so I always read his books. I have to—I’m compelled to know what he has to say about our scarified landscape, our capricious coastline and scorched folk. I recognise his subjects and their salty fishermen’s feet. They live here.
Eyrie starts with a wet stain of unknown origin on the carpet of a skanky flat in a decrepit high-rise in Fremantle. There is no romance in that. It’s a very unappealing starting point. I read thirty pages of Eyrie early this year, when it was new, and I didn’t get past that. I realised though, that Tim was going to give a big serve to the things about the West that most of us who live here despise, especially those of us who look scornfully at the environmental and social carnage caused by colossal mines, cashed up bogans and more deforestation. I knew I’d go back for more. I had to. But it did mean reading the wet carpet scene twice.
I recognise Keeley, his fallen hero. He reminds me of some of the ‘slacktivists’ I know—the middle aged guys who subscribe to Conservation Council and Get Up campaigns and share it all on Facebook. Click, click, that’s fixed it. He is a character whose heart was once in it but now just seethes. I enjoyed his reaction to trauma, his brokenness. It was convincing and genuine and tragic. Then there is Gemma Buck, a childhood neighbour who was reprieved from trailer park parents by Keeley’s family. They meet as adult neighbours in the awful high-rise, The Mirador, where she cares for her six year old grandson, whose mother is in Bandyup (our infamous women’s prison, the treatment of which is so right). Her story drives much of the plot of the novel.
She is in her mid-forties, but her dialogue is reminiscent of a different generation, especially in the first half of the novel. I read years ago that Tim recalled the voices of his aunts and uncles to structure the dialogue of the characters in Cloudstreet. But people of my generation don’t speak like that, even those who haven’t had much education. That language is dying with our grandparents. Maybe he meant to call them up from the dead to voice Gemma? I’m not sure, it seemed to me like a stain of unknown origins. But I kept reading. I had to. Despite this grating voice, which shifts a little as the story progresses, the novel is compelling.
We went to Fremantle during my Eyrie-immersion. It isn’t often that I’ve found myself in situ in the setting of a novel I am reading. It happened once in Sicily while I was reading something by Ann Radcliffe and once in Ireland and Paris where I seemed to be walking in the footsteps of Daphne Du Maurier’s obscure novel, The Hollow Hill. In Fremantle, I found myself watching the seagulls steal chips from the same tables in the jetty-side restaurants where Keeley wanders in a stupor, observing the fishermen in their rubber pants, the scale and slime on the wood. The Asian tourists eating too-expensive chips with a plastic fork, the affluent hippies, second-gen Italians and Greeks who fuss way too much with their grooming, bored kids dressed too nice to look casual and the idle baby boomers spending our inheritance. I love you, Tim, for talking about this. Fremantle is like Nirvana for many Westralians. Most people I know would live there if they could afford a shabby chic place in its aura. But it isn’t Nirvana. Like Keeley, it is a fallen hero. In those moments watching seagulls I had a mind-meld with Tim and Eyrie. They spoke to me and it was special. As we passed the dry-dock and boat building yards we met again and Keeley was walking past the wood-fired pizza signage, blurred by passing traffic. Then we were slowly expelled through the bleak highway into the greens of home in the south west, which nobody writes about much at all.
Perth is a glittery horror, especially so in summer when its vast suburbia, denuded of all but architectural grasses breaks all heat records. Road builders and housing developments make it worse every year. But Eyrie is so scathing and hateful of Perth that even I began to feel a twinge of sadness for it. Surely there is something to love. Like the sullen, abandoned child in the novel, it doesn’t give much and threatens to crash to the ground. It is on the edge, in a multitude of ways. He is so fair he seems leeched of all life. Keeley awaits his death as though it were stalking. Too soon I reached the ashes-in-my-mouth of the end. The end I never expected, couldn’t wait to get to and never wanted and I realised how compelling it was. I don’t think this novel did actually end; I think it just stopped.
But that’s alright because Tim is our ‘pony-tailed prince’ and he wrote about things that don’t get a guernsey from other writers—the awful and unappealing things about this side of the country in our time that we (and mining companies) are bringing upon ourselves. Almost without sympathy.
Donna Mazza is an award-winning fiction writer who teaches writing and literature at Edith Cowan University in Bunbury, Western Australia.
04 Aug 14 at 15:33
That was a great review! I love the way you tear apart the standard review format, that injection of the personal makes for a much more engaging read. Although I can’t decide if I really want ti read the book or not now…
04 Aug 14 at 21:32
Don, wet stains of unknown origins may not be so romantic but your review certainly was. Beautifully written. You are my favourite fiction writer and now you are my favourite reviewer too! I was looking at this very book just the other day wondering whether or not to read it and then you said you wrote a review on it (spooky!), so I thought I would wait to read this before starting the book. Please write more – I don’t want to have to read your novel for a third time just to get my Dr Don fix (and I warn you, I’ve already started it)!!
04 Aug 14 at 23:21
Fabulous review, Donna. :–)
06 Aug 14 at 1:14
Wonderful review Donna; I too had an ‘Eyrie’ moment last summer in Freo, eating out in the middle of town and gazing up to a looming block of flats from where, in my mind, Keeley finally escaped to find some sort of happiness in the southwest we all love.