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Tim Winton: Dirt Music

This is undoubtedly Winton’s best book and deserves to be better known. The quality of the writing is so superior to that of most of his contemporaries that it makes you really wonder why this book doesn’t have a greater reputation. Like his other books, it is character-driven – and the two main characters, Lu Fox and Georgie Jutland are superb characters – but it is also about all that stuff that novels are about, such as finding ourselves, what is love, what is the right thing to do and when is it the right time to do it, what have we done with our lives and should we let the past control us. Of course, these themes have been touched on by many novelists, good and bad, and in the hands of the wrong novelist, they come out as mawkish and/or trite. But in the hands of a great novelist, as Winton is in this work, they take on a dimension of a great work.

The novel is set in Western Australia, in a small fishing village called White Point. The top fisherman is Jim Buckridge, who was toughened by his father, and now makes a very good living. His wife, Debbie, died of cancer and he is now bringing up two sons, with his significant other, Georgie Jutland, a former oncology nurse, whom he met shortly after an interesting though somewhat hazardous yacht trip she took with an American. Jim is out fishing every day and Georgie looks after the boys. She clearly is having difficulty sleeping, at the beginning of the novel, and is obviously not too happy. One day, she notices a truck and gradually figures that it must belong to a shamateur, an unlicensed and therefore illegal fisherman. And indeed it does. It belongs to Lu Fox. Lu’s family seems to be the riff-raff of White Point or, rather, seemed to be. His father died of asbestosis, from working in an asbestos mine. More particularly, Lu lived with his brother, Darkie, Darkie’s wife and their son and daughter, whom Lu clearly adored. They had a band and made a living out of the band and growing melons. One day, the van carrying all five turned over on the road and only Lu survived. He was, of course, devastated and now makes a living fishing illegally and selling his catch to the local Vietnamese restaurant.

Lu and Georgie meet, of course, when her SUV (or ute in the local parlance) breaks down and Lu, returning late from an illegal fishing trip, gives her a lift. Not only does Georgie not turn him in, she is soon in bed with him, having discovered that there is something interesting in him (including his love of traditional blues and his love for Keats and Wordsworth). Before long, they are having an affair, with Georgie out to his place every day when Jim is fishing and the boys are at school. Of course, before long, this is known and Lu is frightened off, his dog killed and his truck wrecked. Lu moves on, hitchhiking North, heading first to the village where he grew up and his father worked and died and then to a small island in (fictitious) Coronation Gulf, off the coast of Broome, which Georgie had visited with her American and which is her idyllic island. You know, of course, that Georgie will join him there but how it is brought about is interesting if somewhat convoluted. He, however, has gone to hide from everyone and to survive, which he does, more or less, for a while. His thinking and Georgie’s at this time make for a fascinating tale of what drives us to do things which are outside our normal modus operandi.

There is, of course, a cataclysmic ending which may or may not resolve some of the issues for the three main characters. But what makes this book is how we got there – the depth of character of Georgie, Lu and Jim as well as the secondary characters, the social and geographical background (the latter being particularly important in Winton’s work) and the struggle that they go through to find their place in the world. Definitely a book worth reading.

Publishing history

First published 2001 by Pan Macmillan