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The Shepherd's Hut

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The Shepherd's Hut by Tim Winton is a novel about an Australian teenage boy escaping his difficult home.
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The Shepherd’s Hut is classic Winton, with its focus on males having a hard time in a harsh but inspiring landscape. Written in prose that pays both poetic homage to the land while reflecting the raw realities of human experience, it is an intoxicating mix, and one that keeps me glued to the pages.

Jaxie Clackton is 15 years old, dragged up by his violent and abusive father in a small Australian town.  When his mother dies of cancer, Jaxie has to face the brunt of it.  Of course, it shapes him.  He becomes a foul-mouthed bully, “a bull looking for a china shop”.  While he’s not entirely likeable, it is still it’s time to root for him when fate intervenes, and his father becomes victim to a fatal accident. Knowing that he will be blamed for his father’s death (because everyone knows he has good reason to kill him) Jaxie decides to run away to make a new start with his girlfriend.  Trouble is he has to traverse the Australian saltlands to reach her.

So begins his odyssey in a stolen car during which the grit in Jaxie’s character reveals itself.  There’s no lack of courage and determination, though perhaps his survival skills are not what they could be.  Still he’s resilient, observant and intelligent. Mostly capable of working things out how best to hunt the meagre provisions available to him.  Though perhaps not quite as clever as he thinks he is, and too confident of his physical stamina in this brutal, arid landscape. (The stolen car soon runs out of gas.) It’s just as well he stumbles across the eponymous shepherd’s hut.

The shepherd in this case is a defrocked Catholic priest, Fintan MacGillis, who has been banished to the outback. Provisions are delivered every six months, although MacGillis is uncertain how long the arrangement will last.  He has, therefore, in the intervening years, developed tactics and strategies for providing for himself.   Jaxie learns much from him.  The hardest lesson for the damaged boy, however, is to learn how to trust, despite MacGillis never showing anything but kindness (although there is an underlying tension due to the undefined nature of MacGillies’s past misdeeds.)

Jaxie’s stay with the ex-priest is prolonged, even though they both know he cannot stay forever.  A friendship of sorts develops through their shared routine and mutual appreciation of the landscape. Confidences are gradually exchanged. There is no sentimentality in this.  Their conversations remain blokeish, the ofttime rawness betraying their respective vulnerabilities.  And as Jaxie’s becomes more aware of his inner person, his outer senses are fine tuned by the pervading silence of the saltlands.  He hears a low buzzing noise. A noise that should not be there ….

Let’s just say that curiosity kills the cat.  What ensues proves that there are no safe places.  The shocking ending is the time of test when Jaxie, the boy, needs to step up into manhood.   In my view he fails.  Jaxie might think he now knows himself, but I’m not so sure. The odyssey across the arid saltlands of his psychology is not yet complete.
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A compelling story of abuse, friendship, trust and the lack of it and of many other emotions.  Given most of the story takes place in the hut of the title, it's also an adventure story.  Is Tim Winton, Australia's greatest living writer?  Possibly.  But more importantly he is a writer of world stature.
Read this book, you won't regret it.
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Winton is a writer particularly skilled at showing the hidden emotional depths of hard men for whom sentimentality seems anathema. Reviewer Cathleen Schine described Winton as a “practitioner of what might be called the school of Macho Romanticism.” Many of his male characters are strong on the surface, conceal their feelings through silence or crude talk and refuse to divulge the emotionally complicated aspects of their past. Jaxie, the teenage protagonist of Winton’s new novel states “Our stories. We store them where moth and rust destroy.” I found Winton’s previous novel “Breath” utterly captivating in this respect for the way it describes the tentative friendship between two solitary boys and their desire to surf. “The Shepherd’s Hut” focuses on the life of another hard-edged teenage lad who is in the midst of a crisis. The novel is structured almost like a thriller opening with Jaxie gunning it down a rural road in a speeding vehicle and the novel gradually unfolds to reveal how he got to this point. He’s someone left without any support network having been slighted by his community and born in an emotionally and financially impoverished household. He refers to his abusive father as “Captain Wankbag” and after a shocking accident, Jaxie is left to fend for himself in the Australian wilderness. His journey and the connection he makes with a reclusive hermit is a sobering take on the erosive effects of solitude, but also the ultimate tenacity of the human spirit. 

Boys like Jaxie are understandably designated as troublemakers for their harsh language and aggressive attitudes. He describes how his behaviour led to him being so ostracised and feared by his fellow classmates and teachers at school, they felt relieved when he dropped out. He describes how his energy can’t be contained “Christ, you could burn a skyscraper down with what’s in me.” As difficult as he must be in person, it’s also challenging for the reader to like at times for the disparaging way he refers to “blacks” and “poofs”. But he’s someone that’s grown up in an isolated environment dominated by straight white people. As abrasive as Jaxie is, it’s still easy to have empathy for him. He feels he must be totally self-reliant after his mother died from illness and no one came to his aide when his father beat him multiple times. But going alone in the wilderness and in life brings many perils with it. His plight trying to survive is arduous and bloody. Winton's writing evocatively captures the terror of self reliance.

As challenging as it is being on his own, Jaxie encounters different challenges when he meets and bonds with a mysterious old Irishman named Fintan living in a secluded old hut. There's a painful hesitancy as the men don't know whether they can trust each other either with their physical or emotional safety. Winton gets so well how difficult it is to form connections with other people because it means making yourself vulnerable: “It’s a dangerous feeling getting noticed, being wanted. Getting seen deep and proper, it’s shit hot but terrible too. It’s like being took over. And your whole skin hurts like you suddenly grew two sizes in a minute.” The psychological journey these two go on feels deeply meaningful and I connected with the story so strongly in the way it demonstrates how people hide themselves in different ways. The novel powerfully shows how there is a kind of security in solitude, but also a price to pay for going it so perilously alone.
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Jaxie Clackton has endured a life dominated by unjust and cruel punishment by his father. With his beloved mother dead, all he wants to do is run away to the only person Jaxie feels understands him. But in order to get to them Jaxie must cross the harsh saltlands of Western Australia. Then a freak event forces Jaxie to go on the run.

There is no doubt that Tim Winton is an author for whom every new book is keenly anticipated by a large following, making a fresh emergence of his writing into the world something of an event.

This is no less a case for The Shepherd’s Hut which doesn’t disappoint, in terms of brilliant prose, evoking the further reaches of rural Australia, and a main protagonist who stays with you long after the book’s end.

Although consistency might be comforting to some, allowing the reader to luxuriate in a story that is well within their comfort zone is not Winton’s way and you’re never sure what you’re going to get in terms of voice and perspective. This is particularly the case with The Shepherd’s Hut where we hear the story directly from Jaxie in his vernacular. The very ordinary way in which Jaxie expresses himself becomes something extraordinary under Winton’s curation. It is this chameleon-like ability to render a story with different approaches which fascinates me about this particular author’s craft, because it makes each book feel fresh.

If the novel does not have universal appeal it will be because it is an emotionally gruelling read as the matter of fact delivery works through the injustices of Jaxie’s life, but more as a way of explanation rather than an attempt for sympathy.

Although the story is rendered in the type of prose which has the potential to make the story a quick and effortless read, I had to keep putting the book down to take a break because of its raw intensity. The narrative really puts you through the emotional wringer.

But taking time to work through the narrative also allows you to really want to get to grips with how Winton makes words work so hard with apparently so little effort. So it’s probably a good idea to first just read and enjoy the story and the myriad of emotions it evokes, then go back in and relish a wordsmith at work, revelling in a prose that is glorious poetry.
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I thought that The Shepherd's Hut was quite outstanding.  

The story is narrated by Jaxie Clackton, a rough, rebellious adolescent in a small, isolated town in Western Australia.  He is regularly viciously beaten by his father until Jaxie returns home one day to find him dead.  Fearing that his own tough reputation and the way his father treated him will lead people to suspect him of the killing, he takes off into the bush on foot, heading toward the girl he loves who is many hundreds of miles away.  We get the story of Jaxie's hard journey and troubles and of his meeting with an odd, isolated old man in a shepherds hut in the middle of nowhere.

It may not sound that alluring, but it's absolutely terrific.  Jaxie's narrative voice is brilliantly done (be warned that the language is appropriate to a very rough teenage boy!), the sense of place in the deserted saltlands of Western Australia is phenomenally evocative and I found the story utterly gripping.  It has quietly perceptive things to say about men, resilience, pig-headedness, love and many other things and it will stay with me for a very long time.

I loved everything about this book, including Jaxie's colourful language (of an almost dead phone, for example: "By now there probably wasn't a bee's pube of battery left anyway.") and the genuine humanity and understanding among the harshness and brutality.  As a couple of examples: "Son, I used to scoff at all the notions people got about the sun and moon.  Primitive people, I mean.  With all their worshipping and fearing.  But the longer I'm out here.  Well, it knocks the scoffing out of a fella."  Or Jaxie's adolescent realisation that, "It's a dangerous feeling getting noticed, being wanted.  Getting seen deep and proper…"  And I especially loved the way some things weren't neatly tied up but left unknown as they so often are in life, and that the book ends on a note of hope and aspiration rather than resolution, because that's the real point of the story.

The Shepherd's Hut is one of the best, most involving books I've read this year.  I'd be delighted to see it nominated for the Man Booker (although it may be too readable for that) and I can recommend it very warmly indeed.

(My thanks to Picador for an ARC via NetGalley.)
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My request to read this book was approved, but when I went to download the book on Netgalley a few minutes later, it was archived and therefore unavailable.
So I'm afraid I won't be able to give feedback for this title (as much as I'd like to!)
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In The Shepherd's Hut, we follow Jaxie Clackton, a teenager on the run after the death of his father and the fear that he will get the blame. Tough and brutal at times, beautiful at others, Tim Winton has once again delivered a great read.
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"It's like family, lad. What else do we have?" Well, in Jaxie Clackton’s case he has neither. No family and little else besides. Having survived a violent and traumatic upbringing, he faces a future in which he has to live upon his wits and definitely not the kindness of others. 
     Wiry, wily and with only one hope to drive him forwards on his journey across central Australia, I felt myself a witness to his growing awareness of human kind's vulnerability and himself as no exception. “It’s a dangerous feeling getting noticed, being wanted.” A message perhaps that speaks to us all. Certainly, Winton leaves us with the reality of entering and leaving this earth alone resoundingly clear once again. 
     Yet, I found myself rooting for this boy. Not out of sympathy so much as respect for his single-mindedness, drive and trust that the direction in which he is heading is the right one. 
     Told in the first person, the dialect took me a while to feel comfortable with but then immersed me in the character and story.  This is not one to be missed.
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I've never read Tim Winton before and didn't quite know what to expect. I'd heard he was a literary surfer (yes, literally, a surfer), and did great description, but also that his material was not particularly plot driven. Perhaps a Western Australian John Banville. 

And The Shepherd's Hut was a pretty astonishing surprise. Yes, there's plenty of description, but no surf. Jaxie Clackton is a teenage boy on the run from the authorities, somewhere in mid WA. His brutal father is dead and Jaxie is worried that he'll cop the blame, so he heads out into the bush with a vague plan of meeting up with his girlfriend Lee somewhere up north. So, yes, we get really evocative images of desert, woods, salt lakes, ridges and dirt. Very little water, which becomes a bit of a theme. There are roos and emus and euros. Ants and flies. Sheoaks and jam trees and spinifex. 

This barrenness never once got boring thanks to Jaxie's engaging voice. Jaxie is headstrong, has bushcraft and trusts nobody. He has been brought up in a world with no love, and he expects violence and treachery wherever he goes. But lost in the desert, he has to follow the dusty trails of vehicles from which he is hiding. This dilemma, this calculating how far he can trust civilisation is at the heart of the story. Plus, Jaxie's determination to survive. 

When Jaxie's tracking leads to the shepherd's hut - and the man who lives there - he has to decide how far he is willing to trust a stranger.

The novel is tightly plotted right up to the last paragraph. There is resolution. But there is also so much ambiguity. There are hints about Jaxie's past that suggest it might not be as straightforward as he tells it. There are hints about the shepherd's background that are never really resolved. There are remnants in the desert of previous settlement that are also never resolved. It is done in a way that is haunting rather than frustrating. 

The Shepherd's Hut is a short, gripping, taut work that is at least the equal of anything else I have read this year.
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