After reading Cloudstreet more than 20 years ago, and not particularly loving it , I decided I should give Winton another go...and I loved his latest novel, The Shepherd’s Hut. Although, to be honest, it took me a while to get into. The main character, Jaxie Clackton, has a distinctive style of speech that is filled with incorrect grammar (“I found me bag”), lazy speech (“I cudda done that”) and lots of f-bombs. But once I was fully into the swing of the text, I felt his language helped to create a vivid picture of Jaxie, who underneath the rough facade was really a lovable rogue.
When the story begins, Jaxie’s mother has recently died from cancer. Disturbingly, Jaxie and his mother were the victims of domestic violence, and the perpetrator was his father Sid, who he calls Captain Wankbag. Sid was also the butcher in their small town, where the local IGA had recently closed down – therefore the townsfolk tiptoed around Sid pretending that they didn’t notice his aggression, because they relied on him for their meat.
Not long into the story, Jaxie returns home to find that Sid’s Hilux has collapsed on top of him as he was doing some maintenance work. Jaxie knew instantly that Sid was dead, but then panicked, thinking that people would accuse Jaxie of killing his father. So, he hurriedly packed up a few essentials and fled town.
The novel then turns into an account of survival in the harsh Australian outback, as Jaxie attempts to travel by foot from Monkton to Magnet, where his girlfriend lives. Along the way he stumbles upon an isolated, run down shepherd’s hut, and he finds himself embroiled in a situation he never would have expected.
As Jaxie struggles to survive in the outback, he is also struggling internally. He’s angry and confused and is searching for peace – but he doesn’t know how to find it. Winton tackles some complex themes in this novel, including our notions of honest masculinity, packaged religion versus personal interpretations of spirituality, unlikely friendships, solitude, trust and retribution.
I imagine this novel will become an Australian classic in the same way as Jasper Jones, featuring on the reading lists of school and university students. There’s definitely a lot to analyse and discuss.