I like Tim Winston’s writing. I like his highly readable prose and earthy, often funny, similes. His characters are well defined and his descriptions of landscape evocative without being overwrought. I even like the Australianess of his voice. Sometimes it feels forced, but maybe that’s due to a bias born of the pervasiveness of American and English fiction. It’s partially for these reasons that Cloudstreet is one of my favourite novels.
All Winton’s strengths are present in his latest novel, Eyrie. Despite this, it (pun intended) fails to soar, largely because it commits the cardinal sin of taking the reader for granted.
Eyrie centres on Tom Keely, a former environmental spokesperson who has shut himself away from the world in his apartment, high atop a notorious high rise for Freemantle’s down-and-out. An undefined public scandal and divorce have left him a wreck of a man, broke, jobless, plagued by mysterious migraines and pain, only able to get through the day with booze and fistfuls of pills.
His self-imposed isolation is ended by the sudden appearance of Gemma, a childhood charity project of Keely’s saintly parents, a woman still touched by the beauty of her youth, but embittered by a lifetime of abuse and hardship. She has assumed care for her young grandson, Kai, a child on the edge in every sense. He teeters over balconies, has eerily concrete dreams of falling to his death and may or may not have autism. Keely’s is drawn to the boy, partly by a hole in his own life, partly to protect the child’s innocence. He thereby becomes ensnared in the mess of Gemma’s life and is thus dragged back into the world and, possibly, towards his own redemption.
Beyond Winton’s technically skillful writing, the first half of Eyrie doesn’t give the reader much reason to engage. There’s the well-sketched portrait of a broken man and his city, but there’s little driving the narrative except the hope that Keely will pull himself out of his misery, the sexual tension between Gemma and Keely and the suggestion of more significant threats to come.
What plot there is feels drawn out and indulgent. In the first few chapters in particular, Winton gives free reign to his love for Australian slang and biblical references. The social commentary is blunt and easy, describing an Australia that had sold it’s soul to the mining boom. One suspects Keely’s politics are not far from Winton’s: scathing of wealth and privilege, pro-environment, anti-mining, a curmudgeonly, anglo-centric Greeny.
The class politics are complicated, in that, while Winton rails against the rich, the battlers like Gemma and the inhabitants of her world are duplicitous and base. Much work is done to establish Keely’s working class credentials, but, as Gemma smartly observes, despite falling on hard times, he’s firmly middle class. I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something deeply paternalistic about Keely and Doris’s interventions. The race politics are even more complicated. Ethnic people are there to add colour: Chinese snapping pictures, Indians in Saris, another aspect of modern life that crowds Keely. None of the non-white characters are given speaking parts.
In the second half, the threat that has been circling around Gemma and Kai materialises, which drives the narrative faster. Unfortunately, the tension feels confected, as the characters continually make head-slapping decisions that stretch believability. There are repeated, noble efforts to justify why the characters don’t solve their problems by going to the police, to arguable success.
That being said, the lyrical, ambiguous ending redeems the book somewhat, just as it redeems Keely. It highlights the allegorical nature of the novel, which casts its faults in a kinder light. Eyrie isn’t my favourite Winton novel, but it’s good enough to bring me back for more.