After my disappointment with the movie version of The Turning I was hoping for something substantially better in Winton’s new novel Eyrie. The synopsis from Penguin is below. It didn’t really grab me as it sounded like a departure from much of what I love in his writing – the rugged coastal settings and the rough characters who inhabit those spaces.
Tom Keely’s reputation is in ruins. And that’s the upside.
Divorced and unemployed, he’s lost faith in everything precious to him. Holed up in a grim highrise, cultivating his newfound isolation, Keely looks down at a society from which he’s retired hurt and angry. He’s done fighting the good fight, and well past caring.
But even in his seedy flat, ducking the neighbours, he’s not safe from entanglement. All it takes is an awkward encounter in the lobby. A woman from his past, a boy the likes of which he’s never met before. Two strangers leading a life beyond his experience and into whose orbit he falls despite himself.
What follows is a heart-stopping, groundbreaking novel for our times – funny, confronting, exhilarating and haunting. Inhabited by unforgettable characters, Eyrie asks how, in an impossibly compromised world, we can ever hope to do the right thing.
I’ve heard some say its not a plot driven novel and maybe it is less so than others, but the storyline is still intriguing. Where it excels is in picking up on the challenges of middle age dreams that have gone sour. Of lives that have gone bad and of the ‘soldiering on’ that happens as people just have to get by. The brooding melancholy that is so characteristic in Winton’s novels is strong in this one.
Keely has lost hope and given up when he stumbles across Gemma, a broken woman with a messy family life who ironically is at times more together than he is. He has tumbled ‘down the ladder’, losing wife, career and everything, finishing up in a dingy one bed flat in Fremantle where he drinks and pops prescription medications to ease the pain of his dark life. The story is set against the backdrop of economic boom times here in the west so Keely’s malaise is even more terrible. As an environmental activist his number was up and was fired. There is some enviro-commentary in the story but it doesn’t feel overly moralistic or preachy.
Gemma is ‘nan’ to 6 year old Kai, who appears to be autistisic and she is his primary carer because his mum (Gemma’s daughter) is in prison and his dad is a druggie. Gemma is a fantastic character. Broken, messed up, angry and volatile. refusing to be helped, needing to be helped, receiving help and then spitting in the face of those who help… she is a lost soul in a world that is spinning out of control. She is a wounded animal snapping at the hands that try to heal her.
Gemma manages to hold down a night fill job (while leaving Kai at home alone) and the guts of the story revolves around her relationship with Keely and his attempts to help her and Kai while his own life is in chaos.
They meet accidentally on the verandah one day. She recognises him from the street where they grew up – where her messed up family were continually rescued by his – where his dad and mum were a virtual foster service to kids who were victims of all sorts of abuse. Keely’s dad, who has died is portrayed as something of a hero, a Christian, a no nonsense pastor, who wasn’t all talk, but who actually gave a damn about people.
Gemma describes him:
Him and your mum – they never went soft, didn’t fake it, never gave up. If his heart hadn’t give out, he’d’ve been up and back at it. That was him, what I loved about him. He had that boilin thing in him. You know: Fuck this, let’s do somethin about it. Of all that churchy talk, son, it was the only thing rung true to me. Like he said, believe what ya like. Think what ya like. You’ll be judged for what ya do. Even if ya cock it up. Die tryin.
There is a chapter devoted to Keely’s dad, and its another great Winton depiction of faith at its best. Nev is a man of action, a bloke who was prepared to use his fists to protect the innocent in the name of Jesus. Nev and Doris live a faith that welcomes the down and outs and shows compassion when everyone else looked away. They get kicked out of ‘real church’ for being a bit rough and into social justice and start a church in their home and then Nev starts a church among the motorcycle community… The more I read Winton the more I sense that he gets the kingdom – he has a sense of who we ought to be as the church – but religious buffoonery just seems to piss him off.
The story follows some pretty inane and unexciting tracks – the lives of those who are screwed up and finding it hard to see any way out. There is a hopelessness about the lives of Keely and Gemma that is disturbing because you know that this is how it is for some folks…
As with most of Winton’s stories these are people you know – people you have met – who have lived in your street and you ‘know’ their stories.
The ‘plot’ revolves around a demand for money from Gemma by her daughter and her druggie partner along with threats and intimidation. Keely is forced to get involved, but realises he is nothing like his dad. He is confronted with his own impotence and fear – all while he is recovering from his career and marriage failure. He is a total disappointment to himself.
I loved the grittiness and rawness of Eyrie and my only disappointment was the final chapter. The ending didn’t work for me, but the rest was wonderful.