The Turning, Tim Winton

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Tim Winton (1960 – ) is a presence in Western Australia, Fremantle’s public intellectual, replacing Ben Elton. We have fairly low standards for public intellectuals over here. The public intellectual of the other end of town is a sharemarket miner, one of whose floats came good, and not just for those in at the beginning.

The boyishly personable Winton is not my favourite author but I feel constrained to keep up with what he is writing, a task made easier by much of his output being on audiobooks and by a lightness of style. His subject matter, other than in Cloudstreet (1991), is almost invariably adolescent boys in seaside towns in WA’s south west, ie. himself. Cloudstreet, as I remember it (not fondly!) is an evocation of suburban Perth in the 1960s, an excuse to bring up again the Rivervale mass murderer, Eric Cooke, himself just an extreme example of the Rivervale men I knew, first or second-hand, but for Winton a plot device, a base to touch. Rivervale, my home, slowly gentrifying now due to its closeness to the city, but for many years row upon row of fibro and galvanised iron State Housing houses on desolate sandy quarter acre blocks, which I have always imagined as the setting for Cloudstreet though apparently it is not.

The Turning (2004) is a novel in fragments. Wikipedia uses the expression “This multi award-winning collection of short stories” but I don’t agree. My reading is that this is one man’s story over time, focusing on his adolescence in ‘Angelus’ (Albany, Winton’s boyhood home town and a substantial regional port city in WA’s south) through a series of interconnected vignettes. Which of course implies that the  stories in which the man/boy – Vic Lang – doesn’t appear, still serve to illustrate aspects of Vic’s story, of his, and Winton’s, generation.

So, the opening story, Big World, is of two boys from Vic’s high school class who head off after graduation, heading north in their Kombi, picking up a girl along the way, growing apart. An essay on boyhood friendship and that Australian staple, mateship.

Right now, standing with Biggie on the salt lake at sunset, each of us still in our southern-boy uniform of boots, jeans and flannel shirt, I don’t care what happens beyond this moment. In the hot northern dusk, the world suddenly gets big around us, so big we just give in and watch.

I said above that Angelus, the setting for many of the stories, is Albany, a port city on the south coast with a history of whaling. This is clearly the case, despite many reviews referring to it as a small fishing town, though I do sometimes get the impression Winton has included aspects of smaller towns on the west coast, Augusta for instance. White Point where Vic’s family camp on holidays is a real place, a remote beach south of Augusta. In passing, Augusta is the setting for much of Stedman’s The Light Between the Oceans and Albany, ‘King George Town’, is both Kim Scott’s boyhood hometown and the setting for That Deadman Dance.

And speaking of Kim Scott, the defect in this book, and in Winton’s work generally is the way he almost completely ignores the substantial Noongar presence in the south west. The “Aboriginal kids from St Joe’s”, however favourably portrayed, who come up in a couple of these stories, are at best tokens. I can’t imagine Winton the environmental warrior is racist, or even ignorant, so can only imagine he has taken the conscious decision that Indigenous stories are not his to tell -which I would applaud – but that is no excuse for implying that Whites and Noongars do not interact.

Over the course of the stories we look at Vic’s relationships with girls, with his wife and with his father. We see Angelus’ underbelly of drugs, crime and corruption, Vic’s policeman father eventually disappearing, a cleanskin forced out and into hiding, discovered years later in a tiny remote community of old men in the Goldfields north of Kalgoorlie. We see also, over a number of stories, the Leapers, Frank a football star, Max an abusive husband, who come together after years of estrangement in a Winton-esque high moment of big wave surfing and sharks.

They bellied down the long, smooth face and beneath them the reef flickered all motley and dappled, weaves of current and colour and darting things that were buried with Max and him as a thundering cloud of whitewater overtook them. The blasts of water ripped through Leaper’s hair and pounded in his ears. The reef was all over him but he held fast to his brother, hugging him to the board, hanging on with all the strength left in his fingers, for as long as he could, and for longer than he should have.

I like The Turning. I think Winton has had a shot at writing something a bit different and it has largely worked. The movie too had good reviews and I must make an effort to see it.

 

Tim Winton, The Turning, Picador, Sydney, 2004 (interestingly, the cover of the copy I have – which was given to me by my sister in law, M to review two or three years ago – has a different, blacker cloud formation in the background, and others have a beach campfire instead of a car). Audio version, Bolinda Audio, read by Humphrey Bower and Caroline Lee

20 thoughts on “The Turning, Tim Winton

  1. Alas, this was the book that finally turned me off Winton’s writing. I’d read three or four of its predecessors, not minding them, but not very excited either, and then this one, about more losers making life harder for themselves than it needed to be, just made me feel fed up with them and with him. I read Breath when it was nominated for the MF and was disappointed when it won because I really disliked it. I felt then that he needed to get out more, and stop writing the same story over and over again from a very limited palette.
    I have since re-read Cloudstreet, and I really liked it, but I haven’t been tempted to open Eyrie or The Shephard’s Hut both of which are languishing on my shelves…
    These thoughts are heretical, of course. Winton is enormously popular and there are people who don’t read anything else who buy his books and read them avidly as soon as they are published… Perhaps it’s because, as you say, that he writes books about adolescence (or adults suffering from arrested adolescence)?

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    • I read/listen to so many bad audiobooks that it is a relief to get to someone like Winton who can at least write. So I’ve read or listened to quite a bit of his work. I liked The Turning more than Breath which I thought was derivative of his earlier work. Eyrie is interesting (to me). I know the block of flats very well – a sister in law lived there for years – and from memory it is a more adult story. As I say, I’m not a fan of Cloudstreet and think Winton is overrated as a literary author. Arrested adolescence describes his output pretty aptly. I’ve been getting a lot of hits recently on Benang and have wondered if it’s a school text this year. The Turning definitely is and I’ll be interested to see if I make it onto the kids’ “hitlist”.

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      • Benang? That’s interesting, I doubt that mine will soar… all I did was recycle what I wrote in my journal from long ago, and it seems very naïve to me now.
        I wonder how teachers cope with blog plagiarists: it must drive them crazy…

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  2. This is a writer I want to read, he’s been recommended so much as representative of Australian literature.
    I have Dirt Music (in French) on the shelf. Is it good?

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    • Winton’s themes of men (or boys) and the Bush are certainly representative. I haven’t read Dirt Music so I looked it up. The setting is northern Western Australia rather than the south where most of his work is set, and it is a thriller rather than his usual gentle observations of adolescence. The synopsis says “fishing trip”, “hiked to Wittenoom”. Wittenoom is in brutal, rocky, tropical bush country on the edge of the Karajini National Park so not sure where the hero was fishing. That said, read it anyway and I will too.

      If I have a favourite Winton it is The Riders, about a man who loses his wife. So he does write about more than boys going surfing, though that is what he always seems to come back to.

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  3. I mentioned to you in a comment somewhere that I was watching a show called 72 Dangerous Animals: Australia. One of my favorite parts of that show was trying to follow along with WHERE these animals are found, which would give me a better sense of the Australian map. I’m not sure I did super well, but I feel like I have a slightly better understanding of where things are. (by the way, the Great White Shark was dubbed #1 most dangerous animal in Australia, even though I would argue that wherever you are in the world, mosquitoes should be tops). Interestingly, in that show, there isn’t much mention of indigenous groups and their relationships with animals, and your comment about Winton being an environmentalist and perhaps liberal implying that he’s likely not racist has me thinking. First, Gandhi was racist. He thought Africans were nasty. Second, it could be that Winton didn’t want to attempt to write people of a different community/ethnicity and bungle it, thus looking like he’s appropriating someone else’s culture. Then again, if he lives among people of different cultures, they are automatically part of his world, too.

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    • Great whites are at home in the Southern Ocean so it is always a bit dodgy surfing the south-west and south coasts of WA. As for race, I’m sure Winton is your quintessential liberal. He tries late in the book to say that some of his best friends are Indigenous but it is not enough. Winton and for that matter Peter Carey are high profile Australian writers in the late stages of their careers who are now being shown up by a new generation of Indigenous writers – Kim Scott and Alexis Wright in particular – who will go on to eclipse them. White Australians have largely struggled to be inclusive of Aboriginal culture without being patronizing and Winton is representative of that.

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      • Also, you were the topic of conversation at a going away party last night. I was telling people about my friend Bill, who lives in Australia and drives a semi, who told me about fairy cakes, which are really white bread and sprinkles, the candy actually known as hundreds and thousands. First, none of us could image eating the dessert described, then we couldn’t get over “hundreds and thousands,” and then we decided that “white bread and sprinkles” sounds like two best friends in prison. It was great fun 😀

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      • Do you know, I feel guilty criticizing Winton. He has his good points and his bad points, and is often in the papers promoting one cause or another, so I treat him as fair game. But he is far from the only Australian writer who’s characters are all white.

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      • Fairy bread really is just for children’s birthday parties. For myself I like a good rich fruit cake with lots of icing. My eighty something mum makes me one each year for my birthday or xmas.

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  4. Oh! I forgot to mention! I ADORE collections of stories that basically make up a community around one person. My favorite is a short work called Cul de Sac by Scott Wrobel. In the beginning of the book is a map of the cul de sac, and each story is about someone in one of the homes. Thus, but the end, characters from different stories are interacting, and it is really exciting to see the way neighbors really know very little about each other. It’s also an interesting twist of looking at domestic affairs through husbands/fathers. Here’s more info: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13451910-cul-de-sac?ac=1&from_search=true

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    • The one I thought of was Olive Kitteridge. I’d be interested to know what Winton thinks about The Turning usually being classified as short stories rather than a novel, I’d be very surprised if that was his intention.

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  5. I loved The Turning and Eyrie, not so much Breath. The Turning mini series is worth watching, although, from memory, there are variances from the book.

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    • I’ve stopped worrying about movies differing from books. I think we once saw movies as glorified illustrations, but I think now they are opportunities to retell a familiar story (my favourite is Bride & Prejudice). I’ve listened to The Turning two or three times and enjoyed it, Eyrie not so much and I think in Breath he repeats himself or returns to home territory maybe. As I said to Emma, I’ll look out Dirt Music though I might spend a lot of time criticising his geography.

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  6. I need to pull this one from the shelf. I’ve just read The Shepherds Hut and it’s another one from the arrested adolescent camp but it’s bloody good. The voice is done exceedingly well. I plan to review it thiscoming weekend…

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    • I don’t think there is any doubt Winton is a good writer. Whether he is a good author is another question. It’s interesting that he periodically breaks out of his dominant themes of boys and surfing but continues to return to them. I’m happy to listen to whatever he writes and I think The Turning is both typical of his writing and that the experiment with form works well. If I review another Winton it will be The Riders or maybe Eyrie, I won’t bore you with a rant about Cloudstreet. I look forward to your review of The Shepherd’s Hut and Emma’s of Dirt Music.

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