Tim Winton’s latest offering, The Shepherd’s Hut, centres on the life of troubled teenager Jaxie Clackton, from the small fictitious town of Monkton, out the back of nowhere in Western Australia.
Suffering from the loss of his Mother to cancer, and subjected to endless violence from his alcoholic Father, whom he alarmingly calls ‘Captain Wankbag,’ Jaxie makes a gruesome discovery that shreds the last remaining fabric of his family.
With a sense of misplaced guilt, Jaxie sets out on an impossible quest across the barren nothingness of mid Western Australia, to chase freedom and reunite with his young love, Lee.
But, as this quote inside the front cover says –
Change is hard and hope is violent
LIAM RECTOR, ‘Song Years’
As he traverses the harsh terrain, surviving with little water, food or shelter, Jaxie constantly looks over his shoulder, waiting to be caught. But, for what? Perhaps it is the desperate lack of love and the deeply ingrained fear pulsing through his veins, that has him running and hiding.
Until he stumbles, sunburnt and desiccated, upon the dilapidated shepherd’s hut and Fintan MacGillis. Fintan’s religious background and cause for exile remains murky and Jaxie waxes and wanes in his trust and suspicion of the old man.
At first, I wanted Jaxie to keep moving, to find his freedom. I found his combative nature and circular indecision at times exhausting, but this is perhaps a deliberate ploy by Winton. For we all get stuck at times in life, bogged down by fear, anxiety or heavy indecision and lose our way. Those of us lucky enough to be loved, can reach for the close hand of a loved one.
And in losing his way and staying put, Jaxie unknowingly makes a human connection with Fintan that is possibly the purest human connection he has ever had.
When Jaxie’s tenuous comfort and safety at the hut fracture yet again, he makes a resounding and violent decision that, while beyond the pages of this book, will no doubt, mark out his future.
Jaxie momentarily sees himself as an instrument of God, and while I’d have to disagree, Winton’s point is relevant. The world over, people commit acts of violence in the name of a God, a pattern taught and handed down through generations.
The Shepherd’s Hut is a close study of the lack of love and the strangle hold of the cycle of violence on the human condition. I found it be an uncomfortable read. From the outset, Jaxie’s voice seemed forced, as though Winton was trying too hard to press his point, but in the end, it paid off. Jaxie’s broken language and broken life are both a warning and a plea for human beings to do better.
The Shepherd’s Hut was first published by Penguin Random House Australia in 2018 and is available in all good book stores.