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Tim Winton: Eyrie
Things have not been going too well for Tom Keely recently. He is living in the upstairs flat of a high-rise in Fremantle, his few remaining assets dwindling away, mainly on alcohol. He eats little, gets up and staggers to the bar. He finds a mysterious wet patch on the carpet in his living room but has no idea where it comes from. He looks a lot older than he really is. We gradually learn that he and Harriet are divorced. She is a lawyer and was pregnant by someone else. The separation was not because of this but because she had an abortion. Tom wanted her to keep the baby. He had worked as the spokesman for WildForce, an environmental activist group, and had been very successful. There were regular appearances on television and he and WildForce successfully challenged businesses on environmental issues. But that, too, had fallen apart. He was now out of a job and living on his diminishing savings.
Tom had grown up in a poor neighbourhood, on a street called Blackboy Crescent. His father, Neville, and his friend, Wally, had set up a boat building and repair business and, by working hard, had done fairly well. But then, Neville had found God and become a muscular Christian, always ready to fight (with fists, if necessary) evil and evil people. He often was called to help some poor woman, beaten up by her husband. Neville’s wife, Doris, was also a Christian and supported Neville in his activities. They set up a church and, initially, it did well but then Neville fell out with the other church leaders and that, too, fell apart. The result was that Neville had a heart attack and died and Doris was left to bring up Tom and his sister, Faith. She had managed to get a law degree and now takes on social justice cases and is still alive and well and doing good works. Faith had gone on to become a successful lawyer.
One day, coming back to his flat, in a something of a drunken stupor, Tom meets a woman around his age, with a young boy. She thinks that she recognises him but it is only when he has gone into his flat that she comes and knocks at his door and remembers who he is. She is Gemma Buck. When they were young, the father of Gemma and her sister, Baby, regularly got drunk and beat up their mother. The Keelys had taken Gemma and Baby in and looked after them. Gemma was now working the nightshift stacking shelves and looking after her grandson, Kai. Her daughter, Carly, was a junkie and was now in prison. The father of the boy, Stewie, was also a junkie and wanted nothing to do with his son. Carly’s father was long since out of the picture. Gradually Tom becomes reacquainted with Gemma and gets to know Kai. Though only six, he has to spend time in the flat on his own, while his grandmother works. Tom, who has clearly always wanted to have children gradually becomes close to Kai, though with some initial reluctance, given his condition. Not surprisingly, Kai has his own problems but he is very keen on birds, which Tom can help him with, and is need of a father figure in his life. The development of the relationship between the two is key to the book.
However, things get difficult with Stewie. Gemma reclaims some of her daughter’s property from him, with Tom’s help, but Stewie and his junkie friends, who, inevitably have financial problems, come after Gemma and start to get threatening. Gemma is in a precarious situation with regard to her guardianship of Kai, so she cannot flee. Tom and Gemma also start to get close, perhaps too close. To make matters worse, Tom’s money runs out and though his mother helps out, he needs a job and he is, as he says, unemployable in his previous field. This certainly is not one of Winton’s best books and is, clearly, the book of an older man (Winton was fifty-three when it was published), with the age of Tom, Gemma and Doris all being key, as they face the prospects of an uncertain old age in the new Australia – a topic which Winton touches on several times. However, as in his other books, it is the strong characters that make this book interesting. Both Tom and Gemma struggle with their ghosts as well as with their difficult present, and do not alway succeed but they are superbly well portrayed and make this book another fine contribution from Winton.
First published 2013 by Penguin