A review of The Turning by Tim Winton

The Turning often makes for painful reading, as we are drawn deeply into the heart of these stunted, unhappy, and sometimes doomed lives, but Winton’s prose is transcendent. Taken together, these stories create their own turning, a sense that life somehow, even at its bleakest, goes on. Even at its lowest moments, there is always some element of beauty.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Turning
by Tim Winton
Hardcover, ISBN 0-330-42138-7, November 2004, rrp$A46.00

Tim Winton has a gift for combining accessibility, literary grace, and a strong sense of the common character. His work tends to traverse a bleak terrain, with poorly educated characters facing limited life choices, and yet there is almost always a kind of rough hewn beauty, between the landscape, the intensity of the emotions the characters experience, and the relationships they struggle with. The Turning is a collection of seventeen short stories that follow the lives of the same characters at different critical moments in their lives. The settings, situations, and themes overlap, but the stories are able to stand alone, as evidenced by the individual publication of seven of the stories in well known Australian literary journals. As the title suggest, each story contains a moment of turning—a brief epiphany where the dirt and grit of the moment is transformed. The beauty doesn’t last, but that doesn’t take away from the richness, or the humanity which is revealed in Winton’s stunning but taut prose. However poignant they are alone, the stories add up to a greater meaning when put together. For example, in the disturbing story which titles the book, “The Turning,” we meet Raelene, mother of two girls, and wife to Max, a violent and angry cray-fisherman. Max is more than an unlikeable character, he’s ugly, criminal, and a sharp contrast to Raelene’s delicate awakening to the world around her. Like the two born again Christians Raelene meets, we want Raelene to leave him before it’s too late. There is only one side to Max in this story—he is pure antagonist:

She got up to meet him, went out into the dull day, but he siezed her by the arms and bullocked her back into the annexe. She felt the van slam into her back and head and he pinned her there.
Who is it? He hissed, bug-eyed with fury.” (155)

We meet Max again in conjunction with his brother Frank Leaper, a football star with a brief season of glory. As with “The Turning,” both “Sand,” and “Family” present the protagonist’s point of view, showing Max as the aggressive and cold hearted bully with a “pit bull leer,” burying his brother alive in a sand dune, teasing and belittling him, and refusing any kind of human dialogue. But when Max is attacked by a shark, we see Frank’s unconditional love towards his big brother, and despite everything, can feel the same sick weight of caring—the way a family shapes character, and gets under the skin:

Leaper saw Max’s head ease down on the board. His brother’s body shook beneath his own and he felt sick with triumph, with anger, from love. The water was thick as sand. Out past Max’s head the tower showed through the spray of breaking waves. Swells overtook them. The tank was bleary, unblinking, above the dune. (186-7)

Max doesn’t improve as a character, but instead of being portrayed as a monster in isolation, we now see him in the context of his uncaring father, and the mother who deserted her children. The pathos of the Leapers’ demise is one that the reader feels strongly, in spite of the horrific nature of Max’s anger.

Another character who we see from a number of different angles is Vic Lang, who we first meet in the opening story, “Big World” where he is briefly described as “copper’s son” and the school dux who doesn’t show up for graduation. He has a much greater role as a bright twelve year old on a camping trip with his chaotic family in “Abbreviation.” Vic experiences his first kiss from an older girl with a missing finger (who pulls hard on his ear as she kisses him), as well as the pain of a hook in his leg, and pain and pleasure become permanently linked in his head in a way which colours the rest of his life:

The whole time they worked, through every blast of pain, he thought of Melanie. Her finger, her swinging breasts, a puddle of sand on her belly. He didn’t give a bugger about the cousins; let them see him writhe and bulbber. He was thinking of her. He was immune; nothing could touch him. (35)

We later see Vic through his wife’s eyes in “Damaged Goods,” as a man obsessed by a beautiful but disfigured girl he knew as a teenager. Vic’s wife narrates and her own obsession with her husband’s regret, and unfulfilled longing layer with Vic’s so that we feel his sadness and regret along with hers. We see other sides of Vic as he helps his proud single mother with her demeaning house cleaning job in “On Her Knees,” sitting by the window with his departed father’s shotgun for security in “Long Clear View,” or in “Commission” where, at his mother’s death-bed request, he meets up with the father he hasn’t seen for twenty-seven years:

So many subtle tiny doses over the years that something in me gave out. I was no longer capable fo forgiveness. If Gail, my wife, hadn’t come along, I wonder what would have become of me. She has such a capacity to forgive, I doubt I could have reinvented myself by sheer force of will, though that would be my natural tendency. I have stumbled upon a goodlife. But my mother was too stubborn, too loyal, to move on. And now she was dying in that same state, fierce with hopeless love, and I was a breath away from screaming it all back in the old man’s face. (226)

Vic ends the book in a kind of sad resignation mingled with the physical pain of Shingles, and revisits that moment by the window where he felt responsibility like a millstone around his neck and fear permeated his bones. The book contains a series of these moments or turnings which create the characters we meet. Even the seemingly unrelated characters are united by their adherance to hopeless love, to a kind of bleak hunger for something missing. They also all share the small, suburban, lower middle class neighbourhood of the fictional Angelus and real White Point, Western Australia. It is both a place to escape from, and one to return to. Put together these stories about the Leapers and the Langs, the stunted James Dean like Boner McPharlin and the girl who temporarily loved him, the sad widower Peter Dyson, Brakey and Agnes: children with missing or deficient parents and parents who were once children with missing or deficient parents, and you get a deeply moving portrayal of ordinary people which is fundamental enough to reveal something true about humanity.

The Turning often makes for painful reading, as we are drawn deeply into the heart of these stunted, unhappy, and sometimes doomed lives, but Winton’s prose is transcendent. Taken together, these stories create their own turning, a sense that life somehow, even at its bleakest, goes on. Even at its lowest moments, there is always some element of beauty.