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