It took only two pages for me to know that I was going to love Tim Winton’s new novel, Eyrie. It’s been ages since a story gripped me so hard and so quickly, and it never really let me go. The prose had me constantly underlining text and flagging pages for excerpts to reread and saviour. It was fantastic. Tim Winton at his Dirt Music best.
His ability to weave a gripping story around ordinary, frustrating, hopeless, at times hateful, but mostly decent, individuals is unsurpassed. He doesn’t make it easy to like these characters, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be completely taken in by them and desperate to know how their story will end.
The book opens in the Mirador, a tower block of anonymous apartments, with Tom Keely, a disgraced, former environmentalist, waking up with a hangover of epic proportions; one that only pills and more alcohol will cure. The opening few pages contain some stellar prose, from the description of Keely’s apartment: The tiny flat was hot already. Thick and heady with the fags and showers and fry-ups and dish-suds of others…the stench of strangers, to the introduction of Tom himself, His wine-blackened teeth the ruins of a scorched earth retreat. I could almost feel the layer of grime on my skin and taste the dank, stale air as I read these lines. But there is also an injection of humour in the ugliness, The towel was not remotely fresh…But while definitely on the nose, it hadn’t quite graduated to the full gorgonzola. Life in it yet. If you were a man unmolested by romance. Having let yourself go to this extent. Keely, as a broken man is in perfect harmony with the story’s backdrop of Fremantle or, as Winton describes it, The nation’s quarry, China’s swaggering enabler…Leviathan with an irritable bowel.
The day that we meet Keely, at his most hungover, is also the day that he runs into Gemma. An old childhood friend who is renting the apartment next door, with Kai, her troubled grandson, who has maybe just a touch of Asperger’s, as well as a mother in jail and a junkie father who doesn’t give a shit.
Thus, the scene is set for a book that contains all of the elements of the usual Winton fare – the nature of families and their struggles within – but in Eyrie, these elements are turned on their head. There is none of the lightness of Cloudstreet; instead it is gritty and dark and brooding. The characters are broken, exasperating, untrusting, and the glimmers of hope for a mean sort of happiness are few and far between.
And, yet, I was completely engaged. There is enough decency in Keely and enough tenderness and need in Kai, to forgive what I thought was a complete lack of thankfulness on the part of Gemma. Keely and his mother, Doris (the star of the book for me), offer her constant aid and assistance, and I felt that she all she did was throw it back in their faces in the most frustrating ways. Usually I am all over any kind of love story – even if it is just the hint of a coupling – but in this case, I wanted Keely well away from Gemma. She was an anchor, bringing him down, and he was already doing a good enough job of that on his own.
Apart from my intense dislike of Gemma, my only criticism would be that I found the end to be a little disappointing. Don’t worry, no spoilers, I just felt like the last quarter of the book was racing towards a glorious conclusion, which never fully eventuated. But I never felt cheated by it. And, to be honest, I’m not really sure if the ending was unsatisfying or whether I was just sad that the book was over. It’s a reading dilemma that I’m happy to contend with.