A unexpected conversion in the Grunewald       

It took me a while to read Tim Winton’s most recent novel and I was surprised, actually, that it was published in 2017 and I still hadn’t got around to it… but that’s moving countries, a pandemic and a supply chain crisis for you. I would have stumbled across it in Perth at some point, or picked it up at the library ages ago, but instead here I am five years later thinking, what the hell took me so long?

The Shepherd’s Hut is beautiful. Distilled. Austere. Hilarious and sad, often within the same sentence. Winton never talks down to his readers, but nor does he make it too easy, there is a sense of being encouraged to feel, to reflect, to let the story carry you along. I listened to it as an audiobook and part of me wonders if it was written with that growing market in mind. Having said that, I still want to own a print copy so I can revisit particular scenes. It’s a conversational book, an extended chat between two very different people, one rude and young and scathing, the other patient and somewhat broken yet full of grace.

It’s taken me a while to get used to listening to books over the joy of taking in a story through words on a page – re-reading paragraphs, the physical appearance of particular words, turning pages, the feel of a book in my hands. But I’m sold, partly thanks to listening to so many podcasts on my morbid Weltschmerz walks in the Grunewald during 2020 and perhaps also from choosing The Shepherd’s Hut, where voice and conversation are so central to the story, as my first audiobook.

The two characters riff off each other in a way that is always engaging – you have the young, outraged, often offensively blunt Jaxie Clackton and then the calmer voice of Fintan MacGillis, a disgraced Irish priest who is old enough to no longer be particularly offended by anything Jaxie dishes out, but is rather delighted by the company of this sweet, if foul-mouthed kid who, like all teenagers, is doing the best he can with what he’s got.

Australian actor Kate Mulvany reads it, switching effortlessly between the two voices, often within sentences, and she absolutely captures the music of Irish speech, with no small thanks to Winton’s keen ear for its cutting yet delicate quality.

One of my favourite scenes is when Jaxie stumbles across Fintan after wandering in the wilderness alone for days. He falls asleep, then wakes to Fintan standing over him.

‘That’s quite a musk you’ve worked up,’ he said.
I didn’t know what he was on about so I didn’t say nothing.
‘You’ll feel better after a soak.’
‘A drink is all I wanted,’ I said.
‘And you’re welcome to it, lad. But look at the state of you. Those duds could walk to the laundry house unassisted.’
That’s when I copped what he was saying. That I stunk.
I flashed up at that, angry mostly but I was embarrassed, too, and there was nothing I could do or say because it was his water going through me gut like a hot worm while I stood there. And I was wobbly as a poddy calf.
‘There’s soap down at the water yard,’ he said. ‘And a towel I can offer you.’
‘Whatever,’ I said.
‘Ahh,’ he said. ‘That’s the spirit.’

The Shepherd’s Hut is about living a spiritual life and what that means to a disgraced Catholic priest who has no qualms about criticising the institution yet somehow holds onto his faith. Towards the end of the story, Fintan has a stab at answering the big question: what is faith? What is spirituality when it’s unshackled from those now-sullied institutions that are slowly but inexorably losing their hold over ordinary Australians (albeit with a powerful, taxpayer-subsidised grip on education and healthcare)?

I listened to this on the first day of the school holidays, always a volatile bunfight as the kids process the fact they don’t have to go to school for six weeks. Around 3pm, as the metaphorical unpacking of a term’s worth of emotional baggage reached its peak, I did a bolt into the forest for an hour. Maybe it was the afternoon light or the prospect of six weeks of no lunchboxes or the sudden cathedral quiet of the Grunewald or the realisation that with audiobooks I could read and walk at the same time, and thus resolve the eternal dilemma of wanting to spend my life reading, while still maintaining my general mobility, but by the end of it I was a convert. Or at least more of a believer than I’d ever realised.

“I suspect that God is what you do. Not what you believe in.”

Another thing I loved about this book was how stripped back it is – an opening scene to set the story in motion, a boy, his few belongings, another man and his modest home, a discovery, some back story, a lot of conversation and one hell of a finale that left me feeling limp – exactly what you want as a reader.

It also feels absolutely steeped in the landscape of Western Australia, what that does to people, what it’s like to know a place deeply and to write from it. It was a reminder to me that coming from Western Australia is a gift. As a relative newcomer to an ancient land, it’s a strange place to belong to, a belonging I have often rebelled against, never quite believed in, talked myself out of, yet I feel its pull on me, all the time.

Winton gets flack for being a ‘masculine’ writer. I don’t really know what this means. Or why it’s seen as some kind of drawback. Oddly enough, it was reading the biographies of Gillian Mears and Helen Garner that led me to pick up this book as Winton was mentioned in both as a quietly supportive colleague. As Fintan MacGillis says, it’s what you do that matters.

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