Friday 9 March 2018

The Shepherd's Hut By Tim Winton

The Shepherd's Hut is Tim Winton's much anticipated latest novel. I am a fan, but with reservations. I loved Cloudstreet and Dirt Music but hated The Riders (it has the dubious honour of being one of my very first DNF books). Breath was good but a bit blokey and Eyrie was okay, but a bit blokey. I adore his children's picture book illustrated by Karen Louise called The Deep. And his essays in The Boy Behind the Curtain were truly luminous.

So I entered The Shepherd's Hut cautiously.

The first 20 or so pages were a struggle for me. I know that there are awful dad's out there, I know what they can do. I used to be a teacher, I've assisted some of those families in negotiating the quagmire of domestic violence over the years. But I don't feel the need to read about such sad, brutal things.

So I struggled with the first part of the story where we experienced Jaxie's dysfunctional relationship with his father. I thought, I can't do this.

Later that night, I tried again.

Without spoiling anything for anyone, Jaxie was on the run and suddenly we had a full-on road trip/survival story underway. Unusually for Winton, there wasn't a beach in sight, as Jaxie headed inland to the scrubby, salty desert areas of WA.

Some readers might find Jaxie's vernacular hard going. It annoyed me at the start, but I think I'm at an age when teenager-speak is annoying in whatever form it takes! But once Jaxie hit the road, the voice became more considered and thoughtful, and was perhaps meant to reflect the influence that Fintan had on him. If you disliked Huck Finn or Lincoln in the Bardo because of the local dialect, then steer clear of this one too. The swearing may also put off some readers.

Fintan was the ageing priest that Jaxie stumbled upon in the bush. We don't know why he's living a life of exile, but there were obviously some issues around the priesthood and the Catholic Church that Winton was exploring here. I'm still not sure what they were.

The same goes for Winton's well-known concern about toxic masculinity. He discusses it in detail, but what is the solution?

Because it's also #ReadIreland month over at Cathy's blog, I thought I would highlight the Irish character in Winton's story. Fintan, the priest is described by Jaxie like this,
I never did know what to make of Fintan MacGillis....He was Irish, he told me that straight up. But I never found out what it was he done to get himself put there by the lake, what kind of person he was before....He was one of them geezers been out on his own so long he talks to himself all day....You had to sort through all these bent up words to figure which was bullshit and which was true. What I mean is he made a lot of noise but sometimes he didn't say much. With that accent of his and the way he said things fancy and musical, it was like camouflage and you knew deep down he'd been doing this all his life, hiding in clear sight.

The Shepherd's Hut is not an easy read, but, in the end I found it to be a worthwhile encounter.
It's not quite a coming of age story because the becoming part was still to happen and it's not quite a road trip story as Jaxie's journey was nowhere near done. It was more like a vignette, a moment in time, a snapshot in time.

I'm not sure I learnt anything new or gained any insights into domestic violence, the lost and lonely or survival, but I can see an action-packed, fast-paced, gritty movie on the horizon!

Eyrie by Tim Winton
Dirt Music by Tim Winton
The Boy Behind the Curtain by Tim Winton
The Deep by Tim Winton

  • Longlisted for the 2020 International Dublin Literary Award.


  1. ..oh, this sounds like a bit of a struggle!

    1. It was to start with, but then I flew through it. An interesting read but not amazing.

    2. ...oke, thanks for the feedback.
      I still think Cloudstreet was amazing...
      and don't feel like being disappointed in Winton's new book.

    3. Yes, I'm still waiting for a Winton to amaze me as much as Cloudstreet. His non-fiction essays have been the closest thing so far (& his children's book The Deep).

    4. I will look at his essays....always good for #DealMeIn2018 !

  2. I am a fan and a cautious reader of Winton's books too. So glad you have alerted us to his latest novel. I'm not sure what to think -- should I get it or no? Hmm I probably should. I enjoyed Dirt Music & Breath but thought Eyrie was so-so.

    1. The Shepherd's Hut was better than Eyrie, which I struggled with too.

      It's only in hardback in Australia at the moment, so unless you're a HUGE Winton fan, I'd wait for the paperback edition #justsaying

  3. I think Winton is one of tbose writers who can astonish with word choice. I don't think it's a matter of 'will I read it?' Just when. I haven't yet but will. Like I still look forward to many Richard Flanagan, Thea Astley, Shirley Hazzard abd Patrick White novels I've not yet read. I may wait till I can buy it second-hand.

    1. Yes, Winton's ability to turn a phrase is astounding. It was interesting having a protagonist who was largely uneducated in this story. His ability to express how he was feeling and thinking was limited and frustrating. There was a definite shift in his ability to express himself though once he went on the run and he was able to reflect on some of the events that happened.

      Like Huck Finn, The Shepherd's Hut is an example of an erudite writer who has restricted his language to convey a whole lot of stuff about class, society and culture through the ignorance/innocence of his protagonist

  4. Worthwhile encounter, Brona? Really?
    Or are you just being kind...

    1. Not being kind Nancy. Over a year later, I still occasionally think about this book - something about it got under my skin. I will reread this one day to try and find out why.

  5. I am sure I can guess what happened to Fintan and why he was isolated by the Church. He had been involved in the betrayal and genocide of some of his flock in Africa. There are clues in plain sight, if you look for them. But I did not find the book ending convincing at all. I gave it 3 stars on Goodreads for the authenticity of both Jaxie’s and Fintan’s voices in the story.

    1. Yes, Winton has a problem with endings in my opinion. And thanks for the tip about Fintan's past. I think I was more focused on Jaxie during my first read; a second read might show me the clues you found too :-)


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