A review of Eyrie by Tim Winton

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

By Tim Winton
Penguin Australia (Hamish Hamilton)
14 October 2013, rrp $45, ISBN-13:9781926428536, Hardback, 432 pages

Tom Keely, the protagonist of Tim Winton’s new novel Eyrie is both charming and utterly unreliable. He lives his life in a self-created fug of anxiety, pain, and confusion, lurching from his isolated “eyrie” on the tenth floor of a run-down apartment complex in Fremantle, Western Australia, to a neighbourhood full of potential human hazard traps where he has to go to get food, fresh air, coffee and alcohol. Keely’s fug undermines and colours the narrative progression as we see it, which creates deep cognitive dissonance in the reader, especially when coupled with Winton’s usual readability, reasonably straightforward narrative progression, and the utter linguistic beauty as we delve into Keely’s psyche. The story progresses easily, driven forward by a racy plot that involves Keely bumping into Gemma, a woman who used to grew up with Keely under his family’s care when her own family became too unstable.  Gemma appears to have moved into Keely’s building with her grandson Kai, a boy who is oddly vulnerable and seems to recognise Keely.  Kai catches Keely’s attention and engages him in ways he can’t quite understand, and he is deeply drawn into Kai and Gemma’s world, made dangerous by Gemma’s drug-addled son-in-law, Kai’s father, and his attempts to blackmail and bully Gemma and Kai.

The main narrative is driven along by a series of questions, many of which remain unanswered.  Who is Keely, and why is he is such a terrible state?  We learn the answers to this one gradually, and often in spectacular thought processes.  Keely was an environmentalist who was fired after he pointed a finger at some political wrong-doing – a whistle-blower who was punished for his honesty:

No easy thing to unwind from.  The toxic adrenaline, the ceaseless performance, the monastic discipline.  Sucking in trouble every day before sun-up, preparing a full day’s strategy in the shower. Finding yourself in the office at midnight, after the final, five-way phone hook-up shaking with rage, caffeine and fatigue.  (7)

We also know that his marriage has broken down after his wife had an affair.  Between the two pivotal events, both in the past, Keely has broken down, losing his faith in both his ideals and love. Tied up with this is the loss of his father – a missionary type who Keely looked up to.  Keely’s feelings towards his own dad – a man he sees as infallible and whose example he can never live up to – colour his feelings towards young Kai, who has terrifying dreams and visions, and who recognises Keely.  There is also the strange, somewhat stilted relationship between Gemma and Keely.  Of course the biggest question is whether Keely will get his life together, especially as his growing sense of responsibility towards Kai requires a clear head. Keely’s mental state is one that slides between alcohol addiction and pain killers, but he has some odd gaps, even fugue states, in which he seems to have no recollection of drinking or taking anything.  The relationship between his self-perception and the response that others have to him, including the concern of his mother Doris, Gemma, and his ex-wife. Keely might be a hopeless case if he weren’t so wonderful with Kai, and if his perceptions and observations weren’t so rich and poetic:

Up ahead, the ancient marri upon which all his hopes rested began to emerge from the shadows, more skeleton these days than living tree, a barkless grey column topped by contorted while limbs that towered out across undergrowth, rocks, shade, water.  He’d come here a lot with Harriet, then alone sometimes when he visited Doris.  Back when he actually bothered.  You could hike down the scree-slope from the road but the view from the water beat everything.  That tree, he thought. It stood before whitefellas even dreamt of this place.  It was here when the river was teeming, when cook-fires and dances stitched the banks into coherent song, proper country.  Just to see it was a mental correction, a recalibration. (86)

Keely may or may not be able to save himself, but he is sincere, trying, even against the cynicism of his destroyed idealisms, to do as little harm as possible. That’s easier said than done, and all the pills in Keely’s drawers won’t stop him from impacting on those who have come into his orbit. All of the characters in this book are needy in one way or another, even those, like Keely’s mum Doris, who appear to be self-contained.  These needs, some of which are complex and subtle, form a subtext that operates as a perfect contrast to the thriller-like action that escalates as the story progresses. The result is a beautiful, deep and engaging story that illuminates human frailty, teases out the nature of risk and compassion, and goes very deep into the heart of love, loss, and personal responsibility.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks and Paul W Newman is her next guest. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.