Book Review: ‘Eyrie’ by Tim Winton (Penguin Australia)

Tom Keely’s life is in tatters. His marriage is over, his fall from grace at work was public and complete. He’s getting by on handfuls of pills, living in a seedy apartment surrounded by a strange mix of desperados.

Keely lives in the shadow of his father – a great man who died young but left a legacy of assertive compassion. And Keely, through his haze, realises he can invoke a glimmer of his father and bring about his own redemption by saving Kai, the boy who lives down the hall. Keely knows the boy’s need for salvation is greater than his own need for oblivion and isolation. But can Keely pull himself together long enough to do anything useful?  In many ways Keely is no better than the thugs he tries to protect Kai from – he too is a drug addict and pathetically unreliable. From his gelatinous soup of despair and desolation Keely has to somehow find the resolve to try again, one last time, for the sake of a boy. A stranger. Can he do it?

Eyrie is about many things – love, redemption, fear, loss, class, politics, environmentalism, the scars of childhood and the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. Winton has a wonderful knack for combining Australian lingo and colloquialisms with achingly clever and absorbing description. For me, his is a uniquely Australian voice, and one that will be valued all the more as time passes. Who else is recording our voice in this way?

(Just as a side note, the only thing about Eyrie that bugged me was that some North American spelling is used. Why? In a book by an author who is the voice of Australia. Does it matter? To me it does.)

It is hard for me to review a book by Tim Winton. I don’t claim any sort of objectivity. Everyone who knows me knows that I happily hold Winton on a pedestal. For me, he can do no wrong. All my misgivings about the conventions of realism in literature fade away under the spell of his prose. And that’s just fine with me. In fact, I don’t want to ‘review’ this book at all. I just want to tell you I loved it, and hope you do too.

If you live on this planet, you can buy Eyrie just about anywhere.

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Book Review: ‘Leaving Home with Henry’ by Phillip Edmonds (Press On Publishing)

Trevor, disillusioned and lonely, takes a road trip to Canberra to visit the Henry Lawson archives. But Trevor soon discovers that Henry is not content to be imprisoned in his papers and memorabilia, and the Australian literary icon joins Trevor on the road.

Phillip Edmonds’ novella is short on pages but is stuffed to the edges with insight, ideas, imagination and humour. It is refreshing to read a literary work that is not afraid to have a point of view – about politics, and about vagaries of Australian contemporary culture. From Henry’s point of view, things have certainly changed, and Trevor is on hand to provide commentary and ‘collate anecdotes’.

It would have been frighteningly easy for Edmonds to sound like he was on his soap box when Trevor explains Australian life to a perplexed and befuddled Henry. But remarkably, this never happens – mostly due to Edmonds’ acerbic sense of humour and irreverent sensibility. Instead of bridling at a pompous ideologue (which, as an Australian, is of course my go-to response in situations such as this), I found myself smiling at Trevor and Henry’s wry observations and found the novella immensely enjoyable.

An idea such as this – combining magical realism with old and new ideas about Australia, and interfering with an Australian literary icon – is an ambitious undertaking. Stories that spend time in the bush are no longer in favour – we tend to see ourselves as urban dwellers – but the device of Henry Lawson is the perfect way to get a story back into the bush and back into a way of seeing Australia that has fallen out of favour. This novella is a yarn inside a yarn – Trevor yarns to Henry, who of course is the ultimate yarn spinner, and the narrator pulls the overarching story together in a satisfying way.

Leaving Home with Henry is as much about loneliness as it is about what it means to be Australian, and Edmonds does not shy away from this raw human emotion. The chapter entitled ‘Loneliness’ shows aching insight into the pain of relationships.

‘On the block they experienced every season, grieved over infertility, had nocturnal visits from kangaroos, saw black ghosts, and tried to cope with a sickness that sucked them dry. It was a time of terrible yearning, and nothing could contain it. A grief that ripped and played with absolutely everything and, even in springtime, there were reminders of small deaths and huge silences.’

But while this chapter is heart-wrenching, the novella spends more time on painfully sharp social commentary than interpersonal pain, and as a result the reader is treated to an entertaining yarn that explores feelings of loneliness but never wallows in them.

How to end a story like this is deeply problematic. Do you return Henry to the bush? Do you return him to the archives? To Sydney, where he spent many of his days? Do you allow him to live on? Edmonds does the only thing possible in the end and manages to make it both funny and insightful, which in itself is the perfect description of Leaving Home with Henry: funny and insightful.

Who would I recommend it to? Fans of Henry Lawson, of course. People interested in what it means to be Australian. But most of all, to people who like a good story told in just the right number of words.

You can buy Leaving Home with Henry from Australian Scholalry Publishing.