You never get an easy ride with Tim Winton. Those who have journeyed with his stories for over thirty years know that, despite whatever buzz may accompany the prospect of a new novel, you need to steel yourself for what awaits. Take a deep breath and hold on. Winton has a way of plunging you deep into the lives of his flawed and sometimes exasperating characters to the point where you care about them more than you should.
His latest novel, Eyrie, comes five years after the wonderfully disturbing Breath, and yet again this is a highly accomplished work. The wait was worthwhile. But don’t expect to make it through this book without some scars. In his quest to create believable characters Winton writes with such honesty and authenticity that a certain amount of heartbreak and loss is part of the experience. There is no cheap grace here, nor easy moral confidence. The wonder, complexity, humour and tragedy of fallible, ordinary lives are encapsulated in Eyrie in what is for Winton an uncharacteristically suspenseful story, almost thriller-like in its intensity.
Tom Keely is a jaded and washed up spokesman for the environmental movement. Following a spectacular and very public fall from grace, his marriage has failed; he’s unemployed and broke. He has retreated into a grimy one-bedroom flat in a high rise in the wrong part of town. Isolated, and hiding out, Keely is slowly willing himself towards death.
Then, despite his best efforts to keep the world at bay, he meets Kai—an intriguingly odd six-year-old boy who has seen too much and projects an innocent vulnerability that Keely can’t ignore. He’s captivated. Keely might have hit rock bottom but any hope he has of climbing out of the pit is wrapped up in the fortunes of this opaque little boy.
Winton excoriates elements of contemporary Australian culture. The blinkered, shallow and impatient rush towards wealth is one target. Those like Keely who would speak up for the environment might win the odd skirmish but they are ultimately impotent in the face of the might of the vaunted market and the grasping corruption of developers and politicians. In interviews about the book Winton suggests that anyone with a prophetic calling to speak up on behalf of the poor, the mentally ill or weak, today find themselves swimming upstream in a society that is looking elsewhere having sold its soul to the machinery of economic progress.
Winton is also clearly perplexed at our tendency to live such atomised lives without true community or connection with our neighbours. The close confines but utterly disconnected existence of the inhabitants of the “Mirador” high rise into which Keely has ensconced himself forms a fitting symbol of this modern phenomena. John Donne may have claimed that ‘No man is an island’ but Keely seems determined to prove the poet wrong. His struggle to be unencumbered with the messiness of relationships is emblematic of a modern trend that Winton explores.
Eyrie opens with a quote from the prophet Isaiah that promises that those who wait on the Lord, “shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk and not faint.” Keely could do with that kind of inspired strength born of faith, as his is clearly failing. He finds it in the boy and the irrepressible urge to protect the innocence of childhood. Keely has never been a father himself, but a paternal urge comes to him in a manner that is as surprising as it is unsettling.
One of the joys of a true childhood involves delaying the knowledge of the world as dangerous and potentially cruel. It’s the sense of feeling safe, in the arms of a parent, within the tranquil warmth of the familiar, being wrapped in the cosiness and steady reliability of family ritual and routine.
Kai’s reality is anything but that. His mother is in gaol, his father a violent drug addict. His grandmother Gemma, still only in her mid-forties, does her best, but is a damaged character full of unmet needs and life’s scars. Increasingly she and Kai are at risk of great harm. Keely is desperate to build a wall of protection around the already troubled mind of the small boy down the hallway. “We’re OK,” he whispers to Kai late at night. “Your safe,” Keely says prayerfully, and Winton adds that Keely was “needing it to be true, wanting to believe.”
It turns out that, for Keely, the pathway back towards life, paradoxically involves putting himself in danger. It’s a return to the ethic of sacrifice that was so prominent in his upbringing, and to which he had become so cynical. Always trying to live up to his long-dead Father, Nev, Keely had for a time, given up trying. Nev had been a large and rough tradesman turned Christian evangelist—“Billy Graham meets Billy Jack”—who preached the word and handed out tough love to brawling neighbours and abusive husbands and fathers. Gemma had grown up in the same street as the Keelys and had frequently found refuge in their home when violence raged in her own. Nev Keely’s rescue missions had taken on super hero proportions in Gemma’s memory. She hopes for something of the same from Tom, but he’s an unlikely candidate—struggling to stay sober and to be out of bed by lunchtime.
A lauded virtue in previous generations, the notion of sacrifice is virtually incomprehensible to a society increasingly built upon radical individualism and shallow utilitarianism. Tom Keely has almost given up trying to live up to the faith of his father; a faith that believed personal sacrifice for the sake of others meant something and had resonances into eternity. Only Kai stands between Keely and the edge of a cliff. Confronted with the action required to ensure the little boy’s safety and future, Keely is forced to consider the costly messiness of being drawn into the orbit of love, relationship and true community. A high price it may be, but in this book’s estimations, it’s the window into life itself.
Simon Smart is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity
This article originally appeared at The Drum