I’m a bit of a Winton fan. I find him a really interesting man and his writing very raw.
His latest novel, The Shepherd’s Hut, is a brash, brutal book with some very deep messages. I savoured this one slowly. And while I’m not 100% satisfied with how it finished up… I’ll take you through what I think about it.
Set in the bland country setting of Western Australia, our main character Jaxie Clackton has been beaten up again by his abusive father in the small town of Magnet. He’s pretty messed up, and pretty used to being treated just about as well as the cuts of meat his father strings up in his butchery.
After trying to get home and safe by avoiding his old man for quite a while, he finds him dead in the garage, crushed while trying to fix his car. It takes a few minutes to process this, but Jaxie quickly grabs some necessities and bolts. He makes it on foot into the desolate Australian countryside. He seems to think that people will think he killed his old man, though it was clearly an accident. So his reaction is weird, but whatever. He wants to be free and safe, and needs to get to his favourite person Lee (also his cousin… it’s a weird relationship).
So Jaxie treks on in the harsh landscape and scavenges to stay alive. Not much happens. Chapters go by where nothing really progresses.
But then he comes across an old guy in a shepherd’s hut. They come to meet each other and Jaxie learns hesitantly a bit about this outcast priest Fintan MacGillis. We never really learn what Fintan has done to render him an outcast in this desolate, solitary part of the world – but he admits to having seen bodies buried, and swears that it’s nothing to do with touching children.
Jaxie and Fintan live together in the hut for quite a while and get some routines going. They’re not really friendly, but they put up with each other. They chat a little, both unable to trust each other.
Things go pear-shaped when Jaxie discovers an illegal drug operation nearby. The marijuana growers end up finding Fintan, killing him, and Jaxie kills them and steals their car. So he’s finally free and can get to Lee after all.
Really, that’s all that happens in this book. But I feel like deeper than surface level there’s some stuff going on here.
Fintan provides us with some truly beautiful thoughts and monologues.
Oh lad, I know they’re only stones. And the moon is only the moon. But they’re not empty things, you know. The past is still in them. The force of events long gone, it lingers. These heavenly bodies and earthly forms, what are they but expressions of matters unfinished? Perhaps it’s not childish nonsense to see stones as men walking, to behold the moon and feel a tinge of dread. A stone is a fact, a consequence. And the moon, it marks a man’s days, does it not? Another month gone, a reminder every cycle that your moment is waning. No wonder it catches in a little fella’s chest when he sees it. Mebbe lunatics are men who’ve remembered they’re just men, not angels.
The strangest thing about this book is the beautiful relationship that forms between Jaxie and Fintan. Jaxie has had a messed up life, with an abusive father, a mother who died too young, and a weird love affair with his cousin. We don’t really know what Fintan’s background is, but he’s obviously craving companionship. And out there in the middle of nowhere Fintan almost becomes a father figure to Jaxie. He asks big questions and thinks deep thoughts. Jaxie is baffled by this talkative stranger, but it becomes something else.
And it’s curious how Fintan could be so old and lost and sorry and fucked up and still see so clear and far. He got me somehow, that’s one thing for certain. Makes sense in a way because we put in bulk time together, those months there was no one else to turn to. But it was strange how he got Lee as well, when I never let on, never said. Still, he knew what she was like. Not just her eyes and shaved head and whatnot, that’s the outside. It was like he knew how solid she is, and brave, how she adds to life, the way he said, how she makes the world bigger just by being in it.
Look, I always knew he was a bullshit artist. Thing is, most of that was outside too, like camo sorta thing. But there was some hot feeling he give off once you knew him. It was like you were standing too close to the stove or coming over with a fever. And I only ever had it with one other person before and that was Lee. It’s a dangerous feeling getting noticed, being wanted. Getting seen deep and proper, it’s shit hot but terrible too. It’s like being took over. And your whole skin hurts like you suddenly grew two sizes in a minute.
There’s a lot of bluntness and swearing in this book. And not much happens. But there’s some full on deep stuff in there too.