Reviewed by Rod McLary
Writers on Writers is a series of books where leading authors offer their reflections on Australian writers who have inspired them. In this latest addition to the series, Geraldine Brooks provides her insights into and readings of one of Australia’s finest writers – Tim Winton. Author of Cloudstreet, The Riders, Dirt Music, Breath [among others] and, more recently, The Shepherd’s Hut, Winton has received universal acclaim for his works including four Miles Franklin Awards and being shortlisted twice for the Booker Prize.
Geraldine Brooks is no mean writer herself. Her book March won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and her most recent book Horse is a best seller. Brooks was awarded the Order of Australia in 2016 for services to literature and advocacy for Indigenous literacy. Like Tim Winton, Geraldine Brooks is Australian, although she now lives in the United States, and began her writing career as a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald.
The monograph begins with descriptions of Brooks meeting twice with her subject – in person at the 2004 Byron Writers Festival where ‘he stood alone, nursing a drink, gazing at the floor’ ; and earlier through reading his novel Cloudstreet where Brooks found ‘our idiom, in all its insouciant vitality, delivered with uncompromising fidelity. Australian writing. Cringe-free’ . Brooks goes on to say – again reflecting on Cloudstreet and capturing in a few words the almost visceral response of many readers of Winton – that she ‘had never read a novel that grazed so closely against my own lived experience’ .
Later in the book, Brooks references the great poet Les Murray when she refers to the quality of sprawl in Cloudstreet as contrasted with the narrow focus of Breath where four characters – Pikelet, Loonie, Sando and Eva – and their relationships are in constant realignment. It is from insights such as this that the reader, who may subliminally sense the sprawl of Cloudstreet, will gain a clearer understanding of the novel’s milieu and, by extension, the brilliance of Winton’s writing. By contrast, an insightful reader of Breath will feel the narrowness of focus and the personal intensity which permeates the novel. Brooks goes to the heart of Winton’s writing when she says that in Breath he made ‘something dazzling’.
But Winton’s writing cannot be fully appreciated without acknowledging the significance of nature and the natural environment to him both as a person and a writer. In his book The Boy Behind the Curtain, he says ‘to tread here [the beach at low tide] and never pay tribute, to glance and just see objects, is to be spiritually impoverished … Looking deeply, humbly, reverently, will sometimes open the viewer to what lingers beneath hue and form and texture’ . The latter suggestion could easily be taken as an imperative for reading Winton – to read deeply and be open to what lingers beneath the words.
In the chapter Words, Just Words, Brooks explores Winton’s ability to use words to convey the inner lives of characters who themselves have a limited vocabulary. There may be no better example than Jaxie Clackton the young protagonist in The Shepherd’s Hut. Readers of this book will know that Jaxie can barely form a coherent sentence yet must carry the narrative. Winton – according to Brooks – achieves this by suppressing his own ‘rich troves of language’ and using Jaxie’s limited capacity for language to convey through the simplest of sentences layers of character and complexity of thought.
In her chapter La Belle Dame sans Merci, Brooks addresses Winton’s characterisation of men and women – all of whom are ‘vibrantly alive’  with all their flaws and failings – which has sometimes attracted criticism particularly for his female characters. Brooks is having none of this. She says – legitimately – ‘we read to find life, in all its possibilities’; and the question to ask ourselves is ‘is this character alive?’ not whether she would make a good friend. Winton’s novels more often explore maleness and specifically white working-class maleness – and from time-to-time adolescent boys struggling to make their way to adulthood with little or no guidance from the adult males in their lives. One need only to look at Jaxie, Loonie from Breath, and Ort from That Eye, The Sky; and the author seems to be asking the reader to show more tenderness, more attention to those shattered people.
For any reader of good literature – and particularly all readers of Tim Winton – this is a fascinating book which offers intelligent and insightful comment about Winton’s writing and several of his books and more notable characters.
The last word must go to Geraldine Brooks: she says ‘when we read Tim Winton, we know we are not alone .
On Tim Winton:
Writers on Writers
by Geraldine Brooks
in association with the University of Melbourne and State Library Victoria
ISBN 978 176064 363 8