This is not a perfect book, but it’s a brilliant book. Perhaps I’ve come to expect too much of Tim Winton but, for me, the first fifty pages were a tad over-indulgent – too much time trapped inside Tom Keely’s monumental hang-over. We get it. It’s bad, really bad. And then there’s that stain in the carpet that never quite gets explained, well, apart from its metaphorical significance. If I hadn’t been a devoted Winton fan I might not have read on. That would have been a pity because this is one of the best novels I've read in a while.
When Keely enters the world of neighbour, Gemma, and her grandson, Kai, the pace quickens. By the midpoint of the book we’re into a page-turning thriller. Keely’s mother, Doris, a bracelet-jangling old Hippy, is vividly drawn and provides a still point of sanity as Keely’s world spins out of control.
Gemma and Keely have a childhood in common, having grown up in the same suburb. Since then he’s had a glittering career as an environmental campaigner with high media profile; she has had a daughter, now in jail [drugs] and a grandson who she’s determined to keep out of the clutches of social services, and worse. Because Keely has fallen from grace they are neighbours again, but in a rather grim tower block in Freemantle, bustling port of Western Australia.
Gemma is used to leaving Kai alone at night as she fills supermarket shelves, but when Keely and Kai form a friendship things begin to change.
Keely, jaded from a scandal we never quite have fully explained, is disillusioned, broke and at rock bottom. Among contemporary politicians, the mining corporations, how does the environment stand a chance and how can any one individual make a difference? He numbs such thoughts with drink and a growing addiction to painkillers. But as he begins to care about Kai, he starts to inch his way back to some kind of self- respect, albeit reluctantly.
Winton seems to be saying that whatever else we lose we can always choose to care for those nearest to us. In that respect we can make a difference, find some dignity.
Kai, the six-year-old who draws Keely out of his pill-popping stupor, reminded me of Ort in that earlier Winton novel, That Eye, The Sky. Like Ort, Kai is a visionary or, rather, a child who has seen too much for his years and imagines the worst. He has dreams of falling and worries about whether or not he will grow old.
Kai is given to leaning over the rail of the walkway, ten storeys high. Keely experiences hallucinations of the child falling but witnesses him so often poised over the rail, as if to fly, that he begins not to be able to tell the difference. Notions of falling, literally from the tower block or falling out of your life, permeate the book.
The sense of place is palpable. I feel as if I could find may way around Freemantle – the dingy high-rise, the sprawling port, shiny marina, neat suburbs. Through Keely’s eyes, we see contemporary Freemantle both from the ground up and from his tenth floor eyrie. Keely moves through the crowds witnessing junkies, rough sleepers, joggers, latte-sipping professionals and barristas – all jostling along together yet in their own worlds.
Winton is brilliant at handling backstory. Keely has a failed marriage and a tarnished career. None of this is fleshed out or visited in lengthy flashbacks. It is generally spliced into dialogue. The characters know what has gone on and talk obliquely, warily, to each other of the past. We glimpse those past events between the lines of dialogue as Keely talks to his ex-wife, his mother, his sister, snatches that we must piece together.
I have the impression that Winton knows exactly what Keely has been through but now, in this story, we are dealing with the consequences, he’s not going to waste good story time filling you in. Keep up, reader! The effect of this is powerful as it pulls the reader closer to the characters, keeps up the tension and our curiosity.
So, not a perfect book but an absorbing, thoughtful read, an unflinching look at the contradictory layers of contemporary city life, a story that follows you round days after you’ve finished the book plus, a master-class in the art of minimal exposition.