I heard Tim Winton talk about this book at Charleston Literary Festival. I really liked him. He came across as a humble, down to earth Australian, and I enjoyed his reading from the opening scene of the book, in which the main character, Keely, wakes up with a killer hangover and tries to make sense of the huge stain that’s appeared on his living room carpet.
I was therefore a bit disappointed to find that opening scene had been massively edited for the book reading. I felt wrong footed and it took me a while to get into EYRIE as a result. Once I did I found much to appreciate, most notably Winton’s use of language, which is remarkable. He’s relentless with it – makes it smack you between the eyes, at times brutally. And that’s very effective at underscoring the pain and the bright glare and the paralysis that Keely feels. So, for example: Gemma drove fast, spinning him into the roof, his lap, the green furze of the golf links, screaming, slapping his belly, through the cowling of his head. It’s also rare for a writer to so effectively appeal to all the sense to convey such a strong sense of time and place. I particularly liked how often he described smells and the sharp contrast, such as when the train smelled of feet and bubblegum. And the heat. The heat is everywhere. Unbearable, stifling and intensifying the claustrophobia Keely increasingly feels as the story unfolds. Yet for all this, EYRIE left me dissatisfied
It’s a very dark book. Funny at times. Despairing at others. Keeley is a discredited environmental activist, plagued by self loathing, memories of his heroic father, guilt and a divorce. He has truly lost his way and knows as much: it was true his intentions were invariably good. But only when he had them. Some days he struggled to even form intention. Washed up in an ugly breeze block tower of flats, he avoids contacts with his neighbours and where his existence is shaped by encounters with high doses of over the counter drugs. Then he discovers that one of the other inhabitants of his building is Gemma, who Keely knew as a child and who regularly sought refuge from an abusive and violent family. Gemma lives with her grandson, Kai, and Keely immediately connects with the child – he suddenly has something to get up for in the mornings. But this is no simplistic story of redemption. The damage Keely, Kai and Gemma have suffered won’t easily be healed. As the connection between them grows stronger, so too does it pose a growing threat, with violence never very far from the surface.
It has all the makings of a gripping story and in many ways it is. But there’s something missing. In part it’s that the characters themselves are too ill defined. I struggled to get a handle on any of them, perhaps because Keely’s black outs make him such an unreliable narrator. So his relationship with Kai is built around a fear that the kid was enchanted by something obscene and awful, some terrible certainty, yet whilst Kai says some odd things, we are left with the sense that much of it is in Keely’s head. We have no real idea who Kai is and the signs Keely’s reads are often ambivalent. Gemma is similarly nebulous. At times victim and at times arch manipulator, Keely is unsure whether to trust her and I trusted neither of them. The only real certainty in the whole of the book is that Keely is staggering towards something – and that something, however bad it might be, might be better than the father shaped hole in him, hot and deep and realer than any notion he had words for that has come before.
Sure, things aren’t black and white. Indeed this is at heart of Keely’s condition – he is incapable of working out what to do for the best because there is no black and white choice, so repeatedly does nothing. But whilst that makes for a fascinating portrait of a man, I was hoping for something more evolved, more definitive. EYRIE is so spectacular in so many ways, it promises more and that makes the disappointment all the keener. Oddly enough, the ending is of the sort I usually dislike – abrupt and open ended – but it’s actually one of the best aspects of EYRIE. That’s mainly because it’s true to the rest of the book – very little seems resolved but anything else would have felt too contrived given that the novel’s trademark is lack of resolution.
Tim Winton himself and his exquisite writing made enough of an impression that I will give his other books ago, but I really hope they deliver more than EYRIE – and I’ll certainly be on my guard against other writers using book readings to falsely advertise their books.