Eyrie, Tim Winton

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In mid 2003 I was working out of Newman carting concrete sleepers for a new iron ore rail line. There was accommodation supplied but I was staying with ex-Mrs Legend who had been living and working up there for the previous 15 months. As it happens she was getting ready to leave and showed me the accounts for a Fremantle vegetarian cafe she was interested in – I do sometimes, infrequently, use my accounting degree. Only after I said I could see some problems did she tell me that she had already bought in.

The cafe was in the bottom floor of Johnson Court, a ten storey, State Housing-built block of flats in the centre of Freo, where her sister, M lived. Milly battled away with those problems for years, moving to bigger premises nearby and establishing the cafe as a successful (and still ongoing) business. But the long hours wore her down, halved her weight till she was just a shadow and eventually she sold out to her chef and went back to mining.

A few years later, living again in Newman, she bought a flat on one of the upper floors of Johnson Court and then when she moved back to Perth and bought a house I bought it from her and one day in the not so distant future will retire there, surrounded by restaurants, book shops, the Luna-SX art house movie theatre and working wharves.

I say all this because Johnson Court is the apartment block Winton calls the Mirador in his 2013 novel Eyrie, set in the period immediately following the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. I remember visiting M at that time. She had moved her millinery business to one of those shops on the ground floor and my friend Janet and I had our bikes stolen while we were inside talking to her. We didn’t see Winton, but M says she sometimes saw him around town.

Winton describes both the exterior and interior of the flats accurately, as he does Fremantle in general, its many disturbed inhabitants, its buildings, the South Beach, the river, in great detail and with some contempt, but with one odd item of artistic licence – he turns the block around by 90 deg so that it is front on to Adelaide Tce instead of side on and has consequently much better views over the city to the river mouth, the container port and the sea.

Eyrie might be the novel where the protagonist – Tom Keely, 49, a long time spokesman for the Greens now unemployed and suffering a nervous breakdown – is closest to being the adult Winton himself, not in situation I hasten to add, but in character and background. The story is that Keely has been subsisting for some time on alcohol, prescription drugs and what’s left of his severance pay when his isolation is penetrated by a woman and six year old boy who move into another nearby flat on the same, upper level. The woman, Gemma turns out have been someone he knew in childhood, who with her sister would turn to Keely’s mother, Doris for protection when her father came home drunk and violent, and who had to some extent, at that time displaced Tom’s sister Faith in Doris’ affections – or at least in her attentions.

The Keely’s had moved away from that neighbourhood when Tom was 14. Tom and Faith (and Doris) had gone on to university educations and prominent careers. Tom had married, but had divorced or been divorced by his lawyer wife when she got pregnant to a workmate. In his younger days Tom had sometimes seen Gemma around – at the trashy end of blonde, leggy and beautiful – but without ever speaking to her.

The child with Gemma turns out to be her grandson Kai, his mother, whom Gemma had had at 16 to an unnamed father, a druggie, in prison. Gemma ignores Keely’s indifference and turns to him for company. He in turn begins to feel responsibility for Kai, left nightly on his own while Gemma stacks shelves at the local supermarket.

The themes which Winton uses this book to explore are – of course – families and growing up, but also the difficulties/responsibilities of acting in loco parentis; and failures of communication across the middle class/working class divide.

Winton, like many of Perth’s middle class, is furiously envious that they are out-earned by the working class, skilled and semi-skilled, bogans in mcmansions. In the novel and again in his interview with Kim (Reading Matters) he vents about a woman driving buses on the mines: “It’s absurd that you can make $150,000-$200,000 driving a bus in the Pilbara”. But Gemma is not just working class but on the bones of her arse, and in hiding from her daughter’s violent, drug-dealing partner. She both wants Keely to be attracted to her, to acknowledge that he once lusted after her, and distrusts him for his education, cannot trust him not to look down on her, a situation with which I was achingly familiar during my last, failed marriage.

I had been following some debate about Winton’s most recent novel, The Shepherd’s Hut in Reading Matters which brought me to this in Tony’s Book World:

… Winton throws this brilliant setup away and forsakes this vivid family story to give us entirely something else, and that is where I think Winton loses his way.

Great literature is about character, and Eyrie has the makings of a great novel, but in the end Winton squibs it here too, unable to pull off the ending without throwing in gratuitous elements of action, suspense and gangsterism, making it a different, less satisfactory type of novel altogether.

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Tim Winton, Eyrie, Hamish Hamilton, 2013. Audiobook: Bolinda Audio, read by Michael Veitch (11 hours)

see also:

my reviews of Winton’s The Turning (here)
Kim/Reading Matters: Eyrie (here), Interview (here), other Winton reviews (here)

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20 thoughts on “Eyrie, Tim Winton

  1. I saw one review which considered Eyrie as Winton’s return to form in the Cloudstreet mode, but as always there are differing opinions. Except about Cloudstreet….

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    • I certainly have ‘differing opinions’ about Cloudstreet, I think it’s a nonsense. Eyrie is a good story about adults with adult emotions but with an ‘action’ ending instead of a character-driven one. I took it that that was at least partly the point you were making about The Shepherd’s Hut (which I am yet to read). Eyrie was preceded by The Turning and Breath. Breath was stock-standard surfie-boy Winton but I think The Turning is better than Eyrie, precisely because the episodic form allowed Winton to concentrate on character without lapsing into action-mode.

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  2. That’s fun to read about the reality of the apartment block . . . degrees of separation. Sometimes trying to ‘make a point’ can poorly impact an otherwise great piece of Literature. Do you think that is what is happening with Winton in ‘The Shepherd’s Hut’ and ‘Eyrie’?

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    • I can’t comment on The Shepherd’s Hut but I think the points Winton is trying to make in Eyrie are central to our understanding of the characters, not distractions as might be the case in a ‘political’ novel. However he is at times both angry and spiteful (and sometimes funny) here which he isn’t normally. My library didn’t have a paper copy on hand so I wasn’t able to use his own words.

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  3. I must admit that I was pleased when I heard about this book because it was a departure in setting from the usual, but I’m still not motivated to pick up my copy from the shelf and read it…

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    • Winton is good at writing and famously has a great sense of place. I think with The Turning and then with Eyrie he was showing signs of being able to write thoughtful character driven novels, of becoming an adult writer at last. I read Cloudstreet when it came out and listened to it again last year. Still don’t like it! But I’m motivated now to see if The Shepherd’s Hut is a step in the same direction, a book for grown-ups.

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  4. Thanks for linking to all my reviews, Bill. I loved Eyrie, but take the point that the ending was off… I get the impression he’s not good at endings (just as Ian McEwan is not good at endings). Nice to hear about the actual building… when I went to Fremantle in March I did wonder which building it was but I couldn’t recall enough detail from the book to determine if it was a real building or one he made up.

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    • I think The Turning works not just because it has an adult POV (though sometimes looking back to childhood) but also because structuring the novel from a series of fragments meant he didn’t need an ending. I enjoyed being able to picture Eyrie’s locale so closely but it took me a while to get used to what he was seeing every time he looked out the window. The actual views from the picture windows are over buildings down the coast with sea glimpses off to one side.
      Next time you’re in Freo I’ll a) point out the building – not that you can miss it; and b) shout you a drink. It’s a lovely town as I’m sure you’ll agree, still recognisable from DH Lawrence’s description of landing there for the first time in 1920 something.

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      • Is The Turning the one that was turned into a film? I haven’t read the book and don’t think I have a copy in my TBR.
        I LOVE Freo, Bill, and reckon I could happily live there if I ever came back to Oz! And yes, next time I’m in town I’ll let you know; be great to meet & have a drink.

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      • The Turning is often billed as a short story collection, but it is clearly meant to be read as a cohesive whole. I think it is Winton’s best work. I missed the film but I seem to remember each story was made by a different director and actors.

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  5. I know I should read Tim Winton but each time I read a review by a fellow blogger, I think “well, maybe not”.
    Still not convinced he’s a writer for me.

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  6. My relationship with Winton is a real love/hate one. I adore his writing and his descriptions of the Australian landscape. I like the difficult topics that he tackles, but as you say, he so often fails to find his way out that feels satisfactory to the reader (at least this reader).

    I did enjoy the sheer exuberance of Cloudstreet, but it’s very different from anything else he has written. Dirt Music is the one I remember most fondly (despite it’s ridiculous ending).

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  7. I like Winton — Cloudstreet is a great novel, and I think The turning and Breath were excellent too. I like his heart, and the way he captures the characters of “ordinary” people. I’ve also liked some of his early novellas. My reading group did this but I was away at the time. I’d still like to read it, but it will probably slip away with so much else to read.

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