In Praise of the New 

Louise Pfanner shares her latest discoveries.

Probably the biggest thing in fiction this year...

 - Thursday, October 03, 2013
The first book I want to heap some praise on this month is Tim Winton's new novel, Eyrie. Eyrie is probably the biggest thing in fiction this year—Australian or otherwise. Winton only writes a novel every few years and he's built up such a huge, loyal following, and has pocketed so many awards for his writing, that a new work from him is always an event. First thing to report is that Winton's book is very, very good. Set in Fremantle and Perth, the novel centres around the character of Tom Keely, a likeable, idealistic man who has had a whopping great fall from grace. He resides in a soulless apartment block called the Mirador, where he drinks and pops pills and tries to suppress his misery; the middle class environmental warrior has hit rock bottom. Then one day in the lift, he bumps into Gemma and her little boy, Kai. Gemma is poor. She's just scraping by packing shelves overnight at the supermarket. The two knew each other as kids and although their lives have diverged markedly, they manage to strike up a tentative friendship. Their relationship begins to revolve around a shared concern for Kai, who is obviously damaged in some way, adorable but showing the scars.
The novel reads like a good thriller, which was a total surprise. As Tom is drawn further into Gemma's world things start to spiral out of control and the tension really ratchets up. It is an emotional roller coaster, plotted brilliantly and cunningly. It is also a book about ideas, in particular those uncomfortable, confronting ideas we try our best to ignore, namely childhood neglect, sexual abuse, drug addiction and class inequality. Each character in Eyrie walks along the tightrope, trying their hardest not to fall off. I spent a lot of the novel with my heart in my mouth, and when the high-stakes action focuses on the little boy, Kai, my blood pressure really rose. Winton is serious about his reader getting involved in the emotional turmoil of his characters, for the reader to see just how shockingly inescapable cycles of abuse and poverty are. The novel is not devoid of humour, thankfully, with moments of ridiculousness brightening up a serious, important book.
There are certainly some ridiculous moments in the history of our great land, as seen in David Hunt's new national history, Girt. If you like your history humorous and your humour sledgehammer subtle, then Girt is the book for you. Hunt has collected various stories from our humble beginnings, and the more bizarre and grotesque the better. I think the highlights for me were the vivid characterisations of the awful Bligh and Macarthur (who exactly was the worse of the two?). Bligh was loathed by absolutely everyone it seems and, according to Hunt, he was 'a short man with an overly large head, weak chin and rapidly receding hairline and gorilla-like body'. Macarthur was a tyrannical, scheming bastard, who destroyed five governors and had smallpox scars that gave him 'a villainous air, but it was the villainy of a Heathcliff or a Darcy—the sort of villainy that impractical young women who spend far too much time reading are convinced masks a deep untapped well of masculine sensitivity'. Matthew Flinders was the really sensitive one. Any man who takes a little cat on his exploratory expeditions after being inspired by Robinson Crusoe must be something of a romantic. This romanticism is seen quite clearly in a stirring love letter to his exploring partner, George Bass, which lay undiscovered until 1998 and has lines like: 'I was so completely wrapped up in you', and references another male friend, Wiles, to whom Flinders' affection 'reaches farther into my heart—I would take him into the same skin as me'. Lucky old Wiles hey, and definitely nicer than Macarthur and Bligh. 
Other episodes in the early years like the First Fleet, the Rum Rebellion & the introduction of the merino are given the once over. The horrible plights of both transported convicts and indigenous Australians are retold in all of their horrible detail, as is the day to day lot of early Australian women. Our new Prime Minister won't be rushing out to buy this one, nor will any reader wanting to skip over or ignore the darker notes of our national story. I thought it was pretty funny (the footnotes are a highlight) and as I had forgotten all about people like Dampier, Reibey and Grose, altogether illuminating.