Winton called this novel a contemporary fable, and there is certainly a clear and obvious moral with a positive answer to the question of how can we live in the modern world with our morality and respect for the environment intact.
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Tim Winton
Illustrations by Andrew Davidson
Originally published November 1997
Reprint May 2004
Abel Jackson lives with his mother Dora by the sea at Longboat Bay where they live a hand to mouth but idyllic life, where they dive for abalone. For Abel, every day is special, as he explores the ever-changing sea, and the surrounding bush in which he lives. He feels lucky, and even luckier when he meets and befriends a large, old groper fish that he names Blueback. But Abel has to go away to school, and after Mad Macka, another friend of Blueback’s, dies, a mean and greedy fisherman named Costello, a “reef stripper”, takes over and begins taking “everything he sees.” Abel and Dora do what they can to put a stop to Costello, but time moves forward and things change.
Blueback is a story about love, loss, growing up, and above all, living with respect for our beautiful and natural environment. Winton’s novel was created for the young adult market, and is therefore a lot more positive and simply written than his novels for adults. It is perfectly suitable for a good readers as young as six (my six year old read it in one afternoon and loved it), but will also appeal to teenagers and even adults. It is important that books for young adults present a positive picture, and this does with its strong ecological message and clean, easy to understand characterisations. It is also important that the story isn’t too scary or riddled with things which are disturbing, and I imagine that toeing the line between clarity and youth friendlness, while still creating a complex and powerful story is a difficult undertaking. Winton does it easily though, and Blueback is also a tender and lovely story which adults will enjoy reading quickly. The subtle linking between the old and clever Blueback and Abel’s lost/dead father adds a layer of depth to the story, as does Abel’s own search for meaning in his life as he grows up without his father or other father figures, and as his perception of his mother and the world in which he grew up changes.
Although the characters are simpler than, say, those of The Riders, or Dirt Music, they are still realistic, and children and adults will warm to the good hearted Abel, and his aging but independent and strong mother. Blueback is also a character to be noted, and Winton’s writing is always, beautiful and full of detail and the rich observations which makes his settings come to life:
He felt like a speck, like a bubble on the sea left by a braking wave, here for a moment and then gone. He pulled into tiny sheltered coves and swam with his mother in turquoise water beneath streaky cliffs and trees loud with birds. Some days he sped close in to long sugary beaches. He stayed just behind the breakers and was showered with their spray and saw the great, strange land through the wobbly glass of the waves. He saw the sun melting like butter on white dunes.
Winton called this novel a contemporary fable, and there is certainly a clear and obvious moral with a positive answer to the question of how can we live in the modern world with our morality and respect for the environment intact. This is a lovely, and easy to read novel which will appeal to children of all ages, as well as adults. For more information visit: Blueback
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A few weeks ago, trying to explain why the book he should have been talking about in front of a genteel audience in Windsor never happened, Tim Winton reached, apologetically, for a surfing metaphor. "Writing a book is a bit like surfing," he said. "Most of the time you're waiting. And it's quite pleasant, sitting in the water waiting. But you are expecting that the result of a storm over the horizon, in another time zone, usually, days old, will radiate out in the form of waves. And eventually, when they show up, you turn around and ride that energy to the shore. It's a lovely thing, feeling that momentum. If you're lucky, it's also about grace. As a writer, you roll up to the desk every day, and then you sit there, waiting, in the hope that something will come over the horizon. And then you turn around and ride it, in the form of a story."
This time, the book he was writing wouldn't work, and he was beginning to feel desperate, when "I got sideswiped from another direction", by Breath - a tale of two boys, their surfboards and the danger they are willing to court in order to feel less ordinary; in order to catch those elusive moments of grace. They become involved with an older couple and are dragged into emotional waters deeper than they might ever have expected; but it is the earlier passages, their negotiations with wind and wave, that work best, because they have such lived particularity. It's only a couple of years ago, after all, that Winton himself, now 47, might have caught his last wave. "We started to see broken boards floating around. And we didn't know what to do, so we went further and further out, and you just think 'Hey, I'm going in soon. I've just got to find my moment,' you know? But eventually the sun's going to go down and it's going to go dark. Shark season."
Winton has been travelling for days and exhaustion makes him look like a marine creature in unaccustomed waters. In Australia, his natural habitat, he has achieved the difficult combination of popular and literary success, and can write a plot that drags the reader through his pages (The Riders, from 1994, for example). His most extraordinary achievement is the degree to which he has found a language that captures the world around him, a concrete poetry both tough and tender, fresh and ancient. So, in An Open Swimmer (1982), for instance, a man freediving "kicked. Blennies and pomfrets poked their heads from fissures ... He peered along wrinkles and ledges. Morwong shot, with lips of congealed blood, from hole to hole". You can hear startled birds "slap[ping] skyward", or a mother in Cloudstreet (1991) who "wept the sound of a slaughteryard"; see "blood gobbed" at the bottom of a fishing boat; and feel, with the minimum of verbal strokes, a young boy's confused sympathy with a dying fish.
In part, this poetry is achieved through a commitment to Western Australian vernacular: utes and roos and chooks, cabbage gums, boabs, bombora. He has known, ever since he started writing (An Open Swimmer was published when he was 22 and won a major prize; by the time he was 34 he had written 14 books and picked up his first Booker shortlisting, for The Riders), that he wouldn't do the polite thing, which in Australia, as in Canada at a similar time, meant kowtowing to the literature of the old country. He says he was part of the first generation not to feel such anxiety of influence, "but I was very conscious of the fact that the two generations before laboured under that weight. And there were different ways for them to respond. There was either a lot of forelock-tugging, passive-aggressive forelock-tugging, or there was beating the buggers at their own game. Being smarter, being more erudite, being more brash. Projecting a sense of confidence and entitlement in order to compete."
Permission to break away came, for him, from the "regional" writing of America, "writers who are in their own place and challenge it from the specific - that felt so universal to me, reading Mark Twain, reading Faulkner, reading Flannery O'Connor. I didn't always know what was going on, but the strangeness of the music, the peculiarity of it, just swept me along. And that means you don't have to be as performative and showy as someone from an older tradition has to be - people having to manufacture freshness and interest by feats of novelty and bombast and linguistic daring, where the style is essentially the story."
Apart from The Riders, which chases a desperate Australian and his daughter through half of xenophobic Europe, his books are set in the land he knows, patches of Western Australia renamed Angelus or White Point, but recognisably Albany and the little crayfishing town of Lancelin (suburban Perth tends to appear as itself). "There shouldn't be anything there, not after 30 years there shouldn't. And then out come these little boys, and the strangeness of the forest that meets the sea and the history and the places that I knew as a boy, and that my father had known as a young man" - because that is something that has always fascinated him too, enforced intimacy with the untamed landscape. Sea and bush are never far away, the men hunt and fish - not for sport, but hand-to-mouth, in communities where, when he was growing up in the 70s, surfing stood out because it was "strange", as Bruce Pike says in Breath, "to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared."
Winton speaks of writing as a form of hunting ("you never look in the eyes of an animal. You never look at it directly, because it knows that you're coming and runs away") and Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea hovers above An Open Swimmer, especially, though the Hemingway who machine-gunned sharks would get short shrift. Land and sea are too implacable for such triumphalism, too capable of the sudden knock-out blow, and Winton's books are stalked by the possibility of the fatal undertow, on sea, on land, emotionally; by the knowledge of how fragile the strongest bodies, the bravest minds, can be. Cloudstreet, for example, begins with a man losing his fingers, then a bright child being half-drowned and brain-damaged for life; the father in That Eye, The Sky (1986) is paralysed by a car accident when the narrator is 10.
The insights are hard-earned. When Winton was little and sleepless, he would eavesdrop on his father, a motorcycle policeman and marksman, and his mother, who stayed at home and took in washing, discussing their days, and especially "the carnage that was associated with my dad's work. I'd hear these stories of young men dying in his arms on the side of the road, or he'd talk about a colleague of his being shot - or more funny things, you know? Like the day my father was summoned into court during a murder trial, to shoot two pigeons that were disrupting the final summing up." When he was five his father was knocked off his bike by a drunk driver. "His chest was all crushed and all his bones were broken. And somebody did an emergency tracheotomy right there on the street." Watching his comatose father, willing him to live (he did), was a defining episode in Winton's life. Afterwards his parents converted to the Church of Christ, a fundamentalist Protestant sect that Winton once described as "like Baptists, only slightly better dressed".
Winton was a bookish boy who decided he wanted to be a writer at the age of 10. His father was transferred in Winton's first year of high school; Albany, a small ex-whaling town, felt rough and violent after the suburbs. He learned to avoid being bullied by telling tall stories, and surfing saved him from doing too much of what they all did: "I mean - to go to a party you have to drive 30 or 40 miles to park in a paddock somewhere, or on a beach. It's a long way, and you know, two lanes of blacktop, and no traffic. So you go as fast as you can. And the first time you hit 100 miles an hour, and you start to feel your blood fizzing, you've got a carload of variously impaired people, and the music is playing - but you know, all you've got to do is hit a bump, and certainly where we come from, hit a roo, and it's good-night nurse."
His 18th birthday ended in hospital, after "the usual sort of Western Australian 18th birthday party, the back lawn of someone's suburban house, a keg of beer, staggering 18-year-old boys and girls. Music. A rotary clothesline, tilted, because someone's tried to kick it half over - and that's all I remember." They'd driven through the front wall of an Anglican girls' school, and he had to be dug out from the rubble. He spent months on a bed on his parents' back verandah, convalescing, and getting reacquainted with a childhood friend, Denise, whom he had asked to marry him when he was nine.
Winton was the first in his family to finish high school - he describes his parents as being of "the last thwarted generation. They finished school at 13 or 14 because they had to work" - and was so uninterested in further education that when he called home from a camping trip his parents asked "'Which box do we tick? Where do you want to go?' ... I just said 'The top box.' They wrote my application for me." It turned out to be the only university in Australia with a creative writing course, and though he is scornful of such courses, he did encounter a good mentor, the Australian writer Elizabeth Jolley. He is proud, and somewhat bemused, that he has been able to make a living from writing fiction ever since.
Not that it was easy. He and Denise married when he was 21, and she 20. She was a student nurse when their first child was born, "and I can remember driving to the hospital in the middle of the night. She'd come out smelling of the cancer ward she was working on, and she'd breastfeed him and I'd drive him home." He wrote short stories, because that was all that was possible in the 60-90 minutes when his son slept, in the middle of the day, learning, perforce, "economy and discipline - I'd be writing the second my arse hit the chair. I guess we were always working under duress, in the sense that we were always broke."
He wrote 10 books in the 1980s, and it is striking how he still sees writing as both a pleasure and an economic necessity; for all his talk about bobbing in the surf, he hasn't got a lot of truck with artistic pretension. Failing to finish a book means having to "make up the income some other way", and in his 20s and 30s that simply wasn't an option. He had three desks, he once said, because "I couldn't afford to get stuck and give a project a week or two of mechanical diagnostics. So I'd have a kids' thing" - he's written six children's books - "a short story and a fiction thing [on the go], or two fiction things and a kids' thing and it was 'right, not working', just slide the chair over and go 'where was I?'"
From the suburbs of Perth the family moved up the coast. They had two more children, and Winton, now the main breadwinner, would work till lunchtime, "then go off to swim in the bay and spear fish. The mornings I'd get up at dawn and catch lobsters - so for poor people we lived pretty high on the hog." In the early 2000s, when Winton donated his A$28,000 Miles Franklin award for Dirt Music (also short-listed for the Booker) to a successful campaign to save Ningaloo Reef, 1,200km north of Perth, from developers, he confessed that it was partly out of guilt. "I guess everything I learnt about the marine environment I learnt at the point of a spear. Or a hook, or a gaffe ... I knew I was having an impact, and reconciling myself with having killed those creatures is something I think about probably twice a day."
In 1987 a writing fellowship took him to Paris, and then to County Offaly, Ireland, for six months, and there he wrote Cloudstreet, which commandeered his own family stories - the grandmother who lived in a tent in her backyard, the farmers forced to leave their land, the grandfather who worked at the Mint, the fundamentalist Christianity, the wharfies and marksmen, the gamblers and drinkers - and made of them a baggy, unashamedly poetic and non-naturalistic but also hyper-real and absorbing saga of two poor families rubbing along in a big house in Perth. "Cloudstreet gets you inside the very skin of post-war working-class Australians the way Joyce makes you feel like a turn-of-the-century Dubliner," wrote one Australian reviewer, who also hailed it as a future classic. It changed their lives.
Until then he was getting a $1,000 advance per book, and the first print run of Cloudstreet was 4,000 copies. He hoped, ideally, that it would sell 10,000. It was reprinted twice in the first week, and went on to sell hundreds of thousands. "That was a wonderful thing to have happen. The normal trajectory is aristocrats making paupers of themselves for the sake of their art - not the working class becoming bourgeois." It has taken the monetary pressure off his writing - and it is perhaps not coincidental that he has slowed down, taking five years to produce The Riders, seven for Dirt Music, or that he is finding the whole process more difficult (when he came to submit Dirt Music he suddenly realised it wasn't good enough, so he spent 55 black days and nights rewriting it).
But he is also able to spend more time by himself, in the bush, or "I can afford to blow the morning off and go for a surf. I think, 'oh god, I'm nearly 50, you know? If I can get another 10 or 15 years of surfing - that's fine. I've worked hard, I tell myself, as I'm throwing the board in the car. I owe it to myself. A bit of water over the gills. That's my reward. I'm happier. In the same way I did when I was a teenager. Going down to the sea in anguish and turmoil and bewilderment, pubescent eruption, then coming home blissed out and happy. At one with the world."
Winton on Winton
"At dusk he gets up and shuffles down to stand beside himself. He touches her, breathes in her nutty odour, shudders as his hip brushes hers. He presses his brow against her bark and puts one clear eye against her, thinking, this is a tree you moron ... But he comes back in the moonlight to hold it anyway. It's warm-blooded, even after dark and its skin so smooth, its clefts so sculpted. He watches himself looking on from lower boughs. He sees a naked creature swimming up against a tree, holding its slim hips and pressing himself to it. A ragged man with flayed shanks whose sudden tiny cry in the night is no louder than the gasp of an opened oyster."
I was on an island in the far north Kimberley region of Western Australia in the early 1990s when I suddenly had an image flash through my mind of a man dry-humping a boab tree. It must have been the heat and the lithe shapes of all those trees in whose shadows I was walking, crunching through shellgrit and crab husks, but I couldn't shake it off. I knew it belonged in something that I was working towards but couldn't see yet, though I couldn't imagine how I'd work up the nerve to use it. But when the moment arrived, a few years later, it felt correct. Sun-crazed castaway romancing a tree? Yes, finally. There you go. Patience - and a little bit of nerve.
· Excerpt from Dirt Music, published by Picador