From the opening pages…. You know you are in the hands of a master…’ Weekend Australian
No truer phrase could be said in response to Tim Winton’s latest novel, Eyrie. From the outset Winton enthrals us with his beautifully layered prose; a simple yet interesting plot at face value but beneath the surface it holds an undercurrent of important themes and cerebral heft. Before we know it, we no longer hold distance from the characters and ideals at play in Eyrie. We’ve been sucked into the undercurrent and must go with the tide until the ride is over. The book revolves around protagonist Tom Keely, a washed up environmentalist with a penchant for red wine and cynicism. Holed up in a dim and dirty high-rise grandly labelled “The Mirador”, Keely wrestles an inner turmoil consuming his days as he comprehends his unemployment, divorce and disconnection from the panorama of life before him.
It’s interesting because in many ways, Winton has gone back to his roots with his latest and arguably most mature novel. In 1981 Winton wrote An Open Swimmer, an Australian take on the ‘coming of age’ novel. Permeated with dark themes and exploration of young Australian’s inner psyche, An Open Swimmer earned Winton the praise and awards that would streamline his career to the recognised Australian author he is today. Although Eyrie focuses on a middle aged man falling from grace, the story arc shows the protagonist enlightened by change, recovering from this fall and becoming a better man. This resembles the structure of An Open Swimmer. However over the course of his career, Winton has (like his characters) changed with the society around him.
To understand the brilliance of Eyrie, we must first understand its author. Winton’s work has earned him prestige from the Miles Franklin Award to the Australian Vogel Award. Although an established author, playwright and screenwriter, Winton still finds time to advocate his environmental stance through campaigns and support groups. As a patron of the Australian Marine Conservation society, advocate of the Save the Moreton Bay organisation and campaigner for the Anti- Shark Finning movement. Winton is an environmentalist at heart which bleeds into all of his writing, yet the author states that:
I don’t think I’d flatter myself to think I’d have any impact. Just because Keely (the protagonist) gets to vent doesn’t mean there’s any use in me venting. I don’t think that would serve any purpose. Novels aren’t a means of persuasion. Fiction doesn’t have answers. It’s a means of wondering or imagining.” (Adelaide Advertiser)
Tom Keely, the protagonist, certainly vents. Through streams of dialogue and inner thought we feel the righteous anger and contempt Keely (and perhaps Winton) holds for the well-off ‘quick to make a buck’ industries that are stripping the natural landscape of Western Australia. Freemantle is described as a mercurial city on the brink of losing its history. An important view that echoes protagonist Tom Keely’s volatile nature.
But as with any Winton novel, the beautiful points of life surpass the mordant. Keely’s cocoon of self-loathing is breached when childhood friend Gemma and her grandson move into the neighbouring unit. Gemma instantly recognises the washed up Keely and seeks his companionship despite his shortcomings. However we soon learn that Gemma and her grandson are not without their own troubles. Gemma cares for her grandson due to her daughter’s drug dependencies and jail time.
Keely is inextricably drawn to Gemma’s grandson Kai, whether it be due to the promise of fatherhood or the chance to find redemption of his own life through helping others. Keely is pulled into the lives and problems of Gemma and Kai, playing the role of father, brother and protector. When the safety of Gemma and Kai’s is comprised by Kai’s aggravated drug dealing father the tension begins to mount. Keely’s efforts to become a good man are within reach when he is given a mission to fill his idle days. Even though the events unfolding become out of Keely’s depth, he holds true to the path of the protector. Early in the book, Keely speaks to Kai about the wild Osprey bird, and gives a quote that beautifully sums up the motivations behind his later actions:
Its talons lock up. Imagine what it’s like when it gets hold of something too heavy to lift out of the water…This great big bird underwater, trying to drag itself up with a huge fish way too big to carry. It couldn’t heave itself out of the water, couldn’t even get to the surface, but couldn’t let go. It was locked on…”
The motivations of each character are never overtly exposed as in many novels of the current day. Instead Winton writes with an ambiguity that gives the relatively simple story a resonance. This allows readers to consider and think about the fictitious characters with true emotion; the sign of a good novel. However it is this same ambiguity Winton writes with which sparked controversy among critics and readers alike for the story’s ending. Without spoiling the final moments of the book, Keely’s efforts to redeem himself as a man fall short. The problem critics and audiences had when reading the last section of Eyrie was that the story ended abruptly without any changes to the events at play. This is a seemingly anti-climactic finish to a book of well-paced actions and events.
Aristotle, Greek Philosopher and pioneer of story structure, stated in his early work Poetics that:
A story is about a change of fortune for the protagonist.”
To represent this change, the generic skeletal structure of story is imposed: The inciting incident, rising action, climax, resolution. Seemingly, Eyrie cuts this structure short, ending right at the point where physical action ensues. It’s like building a house and knocking it down just as the final coat of paint is going on. This, for a reader, can be understandably shocking. We have spent hours investing time into the characters and suspending our disbelief at fictitious elements. Was it all for nothing? No, absolutely not.
The story structure is all there, climax and resolution both. These elements, however, are masked behind the psyche of protagonist Tom Keely. The “change of fortune” Aristotle refers to occurs long before the books seemingly abrupt end. Eyrie is about a man’s fall from grace and his journey to recovery. The introduction of a Gemma and Kai sparks the match of reason for Keely. In the final stages of the story, Keely is acting on his motivations. He does something about the lives of the people he cares about. Keely has changed from the binge-drinking bohemian to the protector, not just theoretically, but physically, by doing something about the problems that plague him.
Although Winton states that “Fiction doesn’t have answers. It’s a means of wondering or imagining”, perhaps it’s all we need to start finding the answers. Reflection on issues within or lives is often difficult. Making the decision to change these problems is harder still. Although the protagonist of Eyrie never achieves what he sets his mind to, he still understands that change needs to be made. Perhaps this is all Tim Winton is trying to achieve with the storyline of Eyrie. To help understand that things in the modern Australian landscape need to be changed, not only with our often imperfect relationships, but with the environment that these relationships take place in. Winton’s oeuvre has reached perfection with his deeply moving novel Eyrie. An exercise in modern morality, ethics, and the need to change the world around us. For the sake of our environment, and our own redemption.