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A boy finds redemption with a disgraced priest in a magnificent new novel by Tim Winton, writes Michele Magwood

Published in the Sunday Times

Tim Winton. Picture: © Lynn Webb.

The Shepherd’s Hut
*****
Tim Winton, Picador, R290

In Tim Winton’s 2017 memoir, The Boy Behind the Curtain, he describes his upbringing in an evangelical church. His parents were latecomers to religion, joining the church only after Winton’s father, a traffic cop, nearly died in an accident. They made up for lost time. The author remembers the twice-on-a-Sunday, “no-frills, bare-knuckled” services where they bellowed hymns “until we saw spots and our limbs tingled”. But mostly he remembers the epic sermons.

“It was church that taught me the beauty and power of language,” he writes. “Recited and declaimed from the pulpit week after week and year after year, these stories and their cadences were deeply imprinted.”

It was here, too, that Winton became aware of the notions of grace and redemption, faith, sacrifice and mercy. Though his books are never overtly religious, these are recurring themes in his writing, gleaming just under the surface.

Another of his overriding themes is masculinity, especially in the form of young, damaged proto-men who he sends on physical or metaphysical journeys. And in every one of his books the landscape is paramount, less a backdrop than a character itself.

In The Shepherd’s Hut all of these themes are rendered down into a hot ingot of a story, forged by elemental forces as blinding as the saltpans in which it is set but utterly transcendent. This is ur-Winton.

Jaxie Clackton is just 15, a rough, punching, furious boy whose whole life has been one of loss and pain. His mother has died, as if in self-defence against the endless beatings of her drunken husband, the local butcher in their fly-blown, one-pub West Australian town. With her gone, “Captain Wankbag” as Jaxie calls him, turns his fists into his son. There is only one good thing in Jaxie’s life, his love for Lee, the only one who understands him. But Lee is his cousin, their love is taboo. Broken and barely surviving in a community that turns a blind eye to his predicament, Jaxie prays to God to “kill this c**t off once and for all”.

But when his father is, indeed, killed off in an accident of his own making, Jaxie knows he will be blamed for it.

Gathering a few provisions he flees to the bush. He has no plan other than to hide and eventually reach Lee hundreds of kilometres away.

From the arresting opening paragraph we know he will make it out: “When I hit the bitumen and get that smooth gray rumble going under me everything’s hell different. Even with the engine working up a howl and the wind flogging in the window the sounds are real soft and pillowy. Civilized I mean. And that’s hectic. But when you’ve hoofed it like a dirty goat all these weeks and months, when you’ve had the stony slow prickle-up hard country right in your face that long it’s bloody sudden. Some crazy shit, I tell you. Brings on this angel feeling. Like you’re just one arrow of light.”

Deep in the wilderness, when he is half-starved and hallucinatory, “burred up and narky as a feral cat”, Jaxie stumbles upon an old man in a hut on the edge of a salt lake.

This is Fintan MacGillis, a disgraced Irish priest, cast out by the church. He is no abuser, though; he is more of an ascetic, an anchorite, and the reference to John the Baptist is clear. He feeds Jaxie, clothes him, bathes him and restores him.

The boy is leery of him, and rude. They have to learn to trust each other but they settle into a fitful companionship.

“A couple times I had to tell him to go and get himself fucked. Then he got all pursy and red and said I was an uncultured ingrate. I said he was a knobjob and he called me a juvenile delinquent. But he never flogged me. So I figured I could put up with his stupid nonsense.”

Gradually Jaxie sheds his spikes and begins to alter. The brutal landscape shapes him too. He becomes minutely attuned to nature and stripped to the core of his young being. MacGillis sees something in him, a base material of goodness.

“When you do right, when you do good,” he tells Jaxie, “well, then you are an instrument of God. Then you are joined to the divine, to the life force, to life itself.”

And an instrument of God is what he becomes when the narrative erupts in a hideous violence. Jaxie will be tested beyond what he could ever have imagined.

At that moment “All the birds landed, the sunlight landed. The song landed. All the decent things in him landed. On me. On my head. And I knew where I was, and who I was, and what I was. Yes, what I am. And it was just like he said. What I laughed at him for. It was like the sun and the moon going through me. I was charged.”

Everything of Winton lands in this book, his preoccupations and perceptiveness, and his matchless writing.

Harrowing but tender, it is profoundly charged. @michelemagwood

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