Teen’s desperate flight through the bush is gritty, brilliant reading

Review: Vivien Horler

The Shepherd’s Hut, by Tim Winton (Hamish Hamilton/ Penguin)

shepherd's hutJaxie Clackton is 15 and a survivor of his father’s inexorable fists.

He lives in a small town in Western Australia where his father is the butcher. His mother is recently dead, but didn’t do much to protect Jaxie when she was alive.

Jaxie is a difficult teen who has had trouble at school and more at home. The day his old life ended sees Jaxie hiding out under the grandstand at the footy oval, waiting for his father to be drunk enough for him to go home safely. He’d come to in the bone crate after yet another beating.

“Bitches all afternoon about what a lazy bludger I am and then makes sure he can’t get any work out of me when there’s most to be doing. No wonder he’s such a success in business,” thinks Jaxie.

Eventually Jaxie slopes home, but when he gets there he can’t figure out what he’s seeing. His father, Captain Wankbag, has obviously been working under his ute, which has collapsed off the jack. What looks like oil on the floor is blood.

Townsfolk know about Jaxie’s relationship with his father. “They’ll say I kicked the jack out from under the roo bar and crushed his head like a pig melon. It all points to me.”

So Jaxie does a runner. He puts some tinned food and fruit into a backpack, takes the .243, two boxes of shells and a five litre bottle of water. Then he heads off into the  bush.

He has a plan. He needs to cross 300km of salt country to the small town of Magnet where his cousin Lee lives. His love for Lee and hers for him is the one beautiful thing in his life, but the families are unhappy about this and the cousins have been kept apart.

So he trudges on. The water bottle is initially heavy, but lightens as he drinks. That’s one problem eased but another pending.

Jaxie has skills – he’s been hunting with his father and knows how to bring down an animal. But in his haste to leave he didn’t take a knife. Food and water become a problem.

There’s a respite when he stumbles across a small cabin way out in the bush, a cabin with a water tank and, amazingly, an old knife. Eventually he shoots a roo, but realises he needs salt if he’s going to preserve any of the meat.

So he sets off again to a huge salt pan, and there he meets Finton, a former priest who’s been exiled to a lonely life in the bush for past misdeeds. Finton lives in an old shepherd’s hut, and once or twice a year the church sends someone with supplies.

But it turns out Finton and Jaxie are not the only people in this remote spot.

Tim Winton is an extraordinary writer, whose evocation of the bush takes you there. He once told the Sydney Morning Herald: “The place comes first. If the place isn’t interesting to me then I can’t feel it. I can’t feel any people in it. I can’t feel what the people are on about or likely to get up to.”

Winton, who is from Western Australia, gets the place, because he certainly he feels Jaxie, knows what he is on about. Jaxie is troubled, suspicious, but surprisingly honest with himself. He knows what people think of him, and he thinks they’re often justified. But he also knows he’s not all bad, and if he can get to Lee he can be redeemed. As he journeys on he says: “For the first time in my life I know what I want and I have what it takes to get me there. …So be happy for me. And for fucksake don’t get in my way.”

As you expect from an author of more than than 20 books and four time’s winner of the Miles Franklin Award, his writing is original and often brilliant. When a fleeing Jaxie is walking across flat, open country, he thinks to himself: “Shanksing across that country you stick out like a rat on a birthday cake.”

This is a gritty story of desperate survival, love and an unlikely friendship and  is well worth reading.



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