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Tim Winton’s Eyrie

December 12, 2013

Eyrie by Tim WintonTim Winton says that novelists can’t effect change. “Novels aren’t a means of persuasion. Fiction doesn’t have answers. It’s a means of wondering, of imagining.

Eyrie portrays a corrupt Australian society where profit is god, the prosperous have left the poor behind, and miners and developers can buy their way around any environmental or social safeguards. It shows the effects of putting the economy first on those whose lives have been constrained by their origins, especially the working poor and the unemployed. And it tells the story of Tom Keely, who spent years fighting the worst excesses of unbridled capitalism. Despite doing all this, Eyrie never sounds like a polemic. Rather, it is a gripping story about people we care about. The political and the personal are seamlessly fused.

Keely has been destroyed by a defamation case brought by a developer, despite the truth of Keely’s accusation of corruption. He lives in a slum high-rise and subsists on booze and pills. Then he is drawn into the lives of Gemma and her grandson Kai, who live in a neighbouring unit, and ineffectually tries to help them when they are in danger. The other main character in the book is Keely’s mother Doris, who is committed to social justice but, unlike her son, realistic about what she can achieve.

Both Keely and Gemma grew up in working class families, but Keely, like Winton, was able to attend university because of Whitlam’s abolition of fees. Thus the novel also explores the impact of social class. Keely is a wreck, but Gemma says he is posh: “Just cause you don’t have a job and you look like shit, doesn’t mean you’re not flash.” Winton challenges the conservative assertion that class is no longer an issue, and he also uses non-fiction to expound on this in a thought-provoking essay in the December issue of The Monthly.

Winton’s use of dialogue and humour to create character and his ability to say much in a few words make the people in Eyrie real. As I read I was torn by two opposing forces: I did not want to read on because I dreaded what would happen next, yet I could not stop reading because of my total connection to the characters. When away from the book I worried about them, and they were my first thoughts upon waking.

This is no redemption story. Some reviewers have interpreted the ambiguous ending as redemptive, but I think that’s wishful thinking. Things can only get worse. This makes the book sound depressing, yet it’s not – it left me on a high. I felt wrung out and at the same time exultant from the wild ride, on Winton’s language and wit, through a virtuoso work of art, all the way intensely feeling what it is like to be another human being.

Can such a work not lead to change? Is Winton right that novels do not persuade? I think that is the wrong question. Perhaps some readers may be provoked into examining their assumptions – or maybe not. But that is not the writer’s concern. Rather, the writer’s responsibility to his or her readers is to be honest. The question should be: is this an honest depiction of contemporary society? And the answer for Eyrie is a resounding YES.

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