In some ways, you might say The Shepherd’s Hut is vintage Winton – vintage in a way that his last novel, Eyrie, was not. But there are dangers to that. Saying this is vintage and Eyrie isn’t implies that we didn’t get along with Eyrie, when in fact we did (not only did we get along with it, we can still recall it having read in the region of two hundred other books since then) – but there is a singular difference between the two books and there is something that defines Winton in the space: Eyrie was very much an urban book; The Shepherd’s Hut is very much a rural book and Winton is absolutely playing to his strengths when he gets down on his haunches, takes the dirt in his hands and lets it slip between his fingers.
Jaxie Clackton is our guide, a young lad who doesn’t rub along in the community in which he finds himself, thanks in part to the fact that he has a dad who knocks ten bells out of him every chance he gets (and this treatment has taught Jaxie one lesson, knock other people down before they knock you down, which keeps people away). He loved his mum but she couldn’t help him and now she’s gone and – well, let’s just say life isn’t good for Jaxie. And then there is what some would say was a fortuitous accident, an accident Jaxie suspects will be viewed as being his fault by the good people about him, so he runs – out into the wilderness, his idea being to lay low until the drama blows over.
There is a girl, Lee, his cousin, who he has a kind of burgeoning relationship with, and it’s hope to hook up with her, at some point, but she’s a way away and Jaxie makes mistakes as he goes (not taking a good knife for one thing) and so it’s as much luck as anything that Jaxie survives as long as he does before he cross paths with Fintan, a reclusive old Irishman who was once possibly involved in the Church but is now holed up in the middle of nowhere as a penitence for former indiscretions. They make for an unlikely couple, Jaxie and Fintan, but Winton knows what he has to do to allow for their initial suspicions to warm, even a degree, in the baking desert they find themselves in.
We spoke with Winton when Eyrie was published and he told us he thought art was “in the business of useless beauty.” It’s worth having that line in mind as you approach The Shepherd’s Hut as those two words in particular sum up the worldview here: there is beauty about them, in the stars, in the sunlight, in the animals and the trees, in the occasional warmth that can exist between two people, but it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t change anything, it doesn’t eradicate sin, or give people an answer if they are in doubt. Struggle continues, even in the midst of beauty. And sometimes struggles can worsen, there can be conflict. Like any good western – and there is a western quality to The Shepherd’s Hut – malign strangers can appear and thhings can go from bad to worse. And they do.
All told, it’s a well-paced, well written, addition to the Winton canon – and, yes, okay, it feels like vintage Winton in some ways but it’s also interesting to read alongside Eyrie because both Jaxie and Eyrie‘s Tom Keely have a lot in common (they both hide in plain sight, for one thing, they both have their conflicts, they both take various beatings). Winton gets better and better, tougher, leaner, more stripped back in some regards, but retaining something vital, some spark of truth, some zest for life, something unquenchable, in spite of how hard things can be.
Any Cop?: In some respects, The Shepherd’s Hut is out of time (the only real concession to now is the use of a mostly dead phone) and is all the better for it.