Fiction - hardcover; Picador; 256 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
If you've ever spoken your mind, or stood up for something you believe in when it might have been easier — and safer — to keep quiet, you will find plenty to identify with in Tim Winton's Eyrie, which has just been published in the UK.
A tale about a burnt out man
In this extraordinary novel — Winton's 11th — we meet Tom Keely, a middle-aged spokesman for an environmental campaign group, who has lost his high-flying, highly pressurised job for daring to speak the truth. He's also lost his comfortable lifestyle, his lovely house and his marriage.
Now, holed up in a flat at the top of a grim high-rise residential tower overlooking Fremantle, he's living like a recluse: not even his mother, a social justice lawyer, is allowed to visit.
Burnt out, broke and clearly ill, he spends his days drinking and his evening popping prescription medication. There is little joy or meaning in his life, but then he meets his neighbours — Gemma, a woman from his past, and her six-year-old grandson, Kai — and things become slightly more interesting — and dangerous.
Returning to life
Told in the third person but entirely from Keely's point of view, the novel charts Keely's slow return to the world he's given up on. But as he endeavours to do the right thing by Gemma and Kai, he finds himself becoming immersed in a seedy world far removed from his middle-class upbringing.
Lurching from one uncomfortable incident to the next, his behaviour gets increasingly erratic — he makes offensive phone calls to his sister that he can't remember making, he passes out, he gets dizzy, he vomits — so that by the novel's end you're wishing he'd do what his mother keeps telling him and seek some medical advice.
But Keely is a man who lives by his own set of rules and follows his own moral compass — and you can't help but love him for it.
Richly layered read
Winton does lots of rather clever things with this novel to make it an exceedingly strong, muscular and richly layered read.
He never provides straightforward answers about Keely's situation — how he lost his job, what happened with his wife, is he sick or simply a drug addict — but provides a steady drip feed of clues, so that you can figure it out for yourself.
He makes Keely come from a family of "good Samaritans" and intertwines that past history with the present to highlight the legacy of what it is to help others less fortunate than yourself.
He then sets the story at the tail end of 2008 during the Global Financial Crisis — which left Australia unscathed — so that he can explore the underbelly of Australian society at a time of great economic prosperity.
And then he has Keely, a well-educated man who's pretty much lost everything, living in a building that houses all kinds of people, including those who had nothing to lose in the first place, so that he can see what happens when a downwardly mobile man falls into that class — will he sink, swim or help the people around him?
A comic touch
Despite Eyrie tackling some weighty subjects — not least Australia's class system, a subject that seems to preoccupy many of the country's contemporary writers — it's done with a lightness of touch and plenty of humour. (There's some terrific pun-laden conversations between Keely and his mother throughout the story, for instance, as well as a rather outrageous hangover scene in the opening chapter which sets the mood for the rest of the book.)
In exploring what it is to be a good person and what it is to do the right thing — whether for yourself, your family, the people in your community or the environment — Winton shines a light on the way in which contemporary Australians live their lives.
Eyrie, which has recently been shortlisted for this year's Miles Franklin Award, is a sometimes exhilarating, often confronting and always thought-provoking read. I loved its intelligence and its clever set pieces tied together by a fast-paced narrative, but most of all I just loved being held in its sway. I've read it twice now — and when I finished it I wanted to turn back to the start and read it all over again. If that's not the sign of a brilliant book, I don't know what is.
I read this book as part of Australia & New Zealand Literature Month, which runs throughout May 2014. The idea is to simply celebrate and help promote literature from these two countries and to encourage others to do the same. Anyone can take part. All you need to do is read an ANZ book or two, post about ANZ literature on your own blog or simply engage in the conversation on this blog and on Twitter using the hashtag #ANZLitMonth. You can find out more here.