by Tim Winton
Picador £16.99, 200 pages
Tim Winton’s new book is charged with the same bitter lifeblood that coursed through the veins of Jim, Lu and Georgie, the needy triangle of fractured characters who fought each other through his last novel, Dirt Music. Lu was a poacher, Jim the local kingpin fisherman and Georgie strung out between them; Dirt Music was an austere odyssey of emotional regrets salvaged from a punishing physical environment.
The Turning offers less catharsis and only the most glimmering prospect of happiness for its characters but, because of Winton’s huge talent for atmospheric storytelling, is potent and compelling. The 17 stories collected here possess the ambience of a novel. All are set in or around Angelus, a declining harbour town in Western Australia, or nearby White Point, the atrophied fishing community of Dirt Music. More than half the stories record different points in the life of Vic Lang or Bob, his absconding father who never fitted in as a policeman in Angelus; Carol, his long-suffering mother who scrubbed on her knees to put Vic through university; or his wife Gail, whose childhood was proscribed by the zealotry of her religious parents.
The landscape is one of low grade employment, or none; of violence and addiction, physical disfigurement, early death or suicide; desertion, friendless isolation and breakdown. Hailing from the suburbs, Gail finds Vic’s Angelus heritage “an altogether different country - the teenage pregnancies, the roll call of who died or went to jail before they reached majority”. Winton links some narratives with meticulously observed character and place, but all inhabit the oppressive emotional geography of lives hedged in by rumour, poverty and the overwhelming assumption of failure.
”Big World” is well chosen to start the collection, offering a manifesto of fizzling hope. The narrator and Biggie, the ambling oaf who defended him from bullying in school, sink their cash into a VW Kombi to escape their meatpacking jobs in Angelus. His is one of several teenage voices buzzing with hormonal interference, and describing a peculiarly limited world view that inevitably explodes: the Kombi catches fire out in the bush, by which time the narrator had realised that their friendship was a sham and his life had badly stalled. Winton draws out the liminal uncertainty of adolescents with rare skill. He captures the poignance of Vic Lang’s first fumble in “Abbreviation” by already introducing its elegiac note of transience: Vic is aware of “something important that was out of his reach, the way everything is when you’re just a stupid kid and all the talk is over your head”.
”Boner McPharlin’s Moll”, the longest and best of the muscular collection, carries this childhood naivety into adulthood. Jackie, 15, and on the cusp of maturity, starts riding around with Angelus drop-out Boner McPharlin, attracted by his aura of rebellious teenage cool. Gossip isolates her as a slut but their relationship is chaste, and mutely uneventful. Looking back from the success of her professional life, Jackie finally realises how her lack of curiosity about Boner’s trashy existence allowed her to consider him as something other than a sad loner from a dysfunctional family, manipulated by corrupt police and glamorised only for the perceived danger of his otherness.
Most of these tales contain similar turning points, occasionally as desultory epiphanies but more often as accumulated relationship failures that eventually twist into focus. The few glimmers of hope are partial, and in stoic defiance of the past.
In the title story, Raelene courageously determines to survive the savage beatings that she endures from her partner Max, a White Point fisherman sacked for his brutal nature, by killing the last of her respect for him.
In reality, she is still stuck in their trailer, protecting their kids.
With shredded health and teetering marriage, Vic Lang negotiates a less punishing compromise with his parlous circumstances when he stumbles on a sort of contentment, shooting clay pigeons alone in the dusk.
”Just small-town shit, Gail,” says Vic. “Which you haven’t dealt with,” she smartly replies. That “different country” which puzzled Gail is not the pitiless, small-town intimacy of Angelus, but the past, a poisonous, seemingly inescapable landscape smouldering with unfocused anger and unstated regret. “The past is in us, and not behind us,” the narrator of “Aquifer” reflects wearily, voicing a sentiment at the core of Winton’s vision. “Things are never over.”
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