“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 (Hamish Hamilton; $39.99) 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.
First published in The Monthly.