American readers and writers speak often of ‘The Great American Novel’. The idea that grand narratives can hold a mirror up to contemporary America and represent the spirit of the country in that particular period of time. This is not really something Australian’s speak of as much, but at the end of 2013 three novels were released that are all, even if unintentionally, vying for this title: Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda, Richard Flanagan’s The Long Road To The Deep North, and Tim Winton’s Eyrie. Barracuda and The Long Road To The Deep North were by far two of my most treasured reads of last year. They were both incredibly well written, emotional, and made me think not only about Australia (present in the case of Barracuda and past in the case of The Long Road To The Deep North) but also about my place in it. In Eyrie, it feels like Winton has very consciously set out to write the new ‘great Australian novel’. In fact that is exactly how his publisher has marketed it: the cover sleeve promises “a heart-stopping, groundbreaking novel for our times”. The irony here of course is that Winton has arguably already written the great Australian novel when he published Cloudstreet back in 1991. But whereas Flanagan and Tsiolkas provoked big ideas amongst beautiful narration and carefully crafted characters, Winton’s Eyrie feels incredibly self-conscious and failed to connect me to the story.
Eyrie centres on the character of Tom Keely, a divorced and unemployed middle-aged man struggling to piece himself back together after he spectacularly loses his high profile job as an environmental campaigner. Struggling with his mental health whilst trying to work out what’s next, he stumbles upon childhood friend Gemma who lives in a neighbouring apartment within Tom’s Fremantle high-rise. Gemma’s rough childhood has followed her throughout her life and sees her now struggling to raise her grandson Kai in the absence of her own daughter. Circumstances push Tom and Gemma back together after a long absence, and they become a team, reliving the best and worst of their childhoods, providing support to Kai, and much needed company amidst their own personal misery.
There is nothing understated about Tom and Gemma’s relationship. The two seem to inadvertently bash each other over the head relentlessly, whether in the dredging up of their shared past, in their brief physical relationship, or in their love and support of Kai. Winton uses this relationship as his central vehicle for the real purpose of this novel: to discuss class in contemporary Australia. Tom is endlessly seen as the hero and protector of Kai, and Gemma both the villian and the victim of the novel. Whereas Gemma leaves Kai alone in the apartment whilst she works at night to support them, Tom stays by Kai’s side and protects him from nightmares. Despite Gemma working tirelessly to protect Kai from his drug abusing, criminal parents, this seems to fade in comparison to Tom’s ability to be present. It is yet another perpetuation of working mother’s guilt: despite Gemma doing everything in her power to raise, support and provide for Kai, her need to leave him alone while she works is penalised with judgement. This is seemingly all a vehicle by Winton to play Tom as the hero: to provide the great figure within the great novel.
Last year in the lead-up to the release of The Turning, a set of short films made about Winton’s collection of short stories by the same name, Nicolle Flint wrote this piece for The Age about misogyny in Tim Winton’s work. Though it didn’t mean that much to me as the story was released, I kept returning to the idea whilst reading Eyrie, particularly Flint’s assertion that Winton perpetuates the “saintly-mother-versus-fallen-woman stereotype”. In Eyrie, while Gemma’s parenting decisions are constantly cast under a microscope, Tom’s mother Doris is seen as a martyr and lauded by Tom, Gemma and Kai alike. The difference: class.
Kai is a shy and vulnerable child and the heart of the novel. But he is also a pawn in Tom and Gemma’s relationship. After Tom buys Scrabble for Kai, something Gemma was seemingly either unwilling or unable to do, only Tom and Doris play it with him, not Gemma. This only prolongs Winton’s claim that Gemma’s class leads to her being a poor role model for Kai. There are also far less subtle examples of Tom and Doris’ judgement of Gemma, Kai and their family:
“This boy, Doris was saying. Gemma’s grandson. How old is he?
I know, he said guiltily.
I spose he could be Jet.
As I mentioned in my post about Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda, shortly after the release of the novel Tsiolkas had an essay discussing asylum seeker policy and rhetoric in The Monthly. Similarly, shortly after the release of Eyrie, Winton had an essay discussing class published, also in The Monthly. In The C Word Winton argues that not only does a class system exist in Australia, but that “there is a curious reluctance to examine the systemic causes of this inequality”. He raises the idea that without the Whitlam policy of free higher education an entire generation, himself included, would have been denied an opportunity to move up the metaphorical ladder, but that with this policy long since revoked, current generations are victim to “(f)ederal ministers – Labor and Liberal – who’d been educated in the era of Whitlam (who) promptly pulled the ladder up after themselves”. These are all interesting ideas and are well articulated, but in my mind, were better suited to the essay form that muddied within the novel.
Where Tsiolkas used Barracuda as a vehicle to talk about migration amongst other ideas of class, politics, sexuality and national identity, Winton only touches briefly on other ideas and by doing so only confuses the reader. Tsiolkas’ characters were also deeply layered, thought provoking and likeable. Winton’s characters, with the exception of the Kai, are deeply flawed but these flaws are rarely reconciled. There is an anger to each of the characters that doesn’t let up, and this only eroded my connection with them. When Tom goes to his mother’s house, he holds a resentment against Doris for moving away from his childhood home. Speaking of her new home:
“It’s a nice house, this, he said sincerely.
Still, you’ve always disapproved.
In ten years you’ve never had a good word for it.
Oh, rubbish. That’s middle-class anxiety”.
And again, only sentences later:
“You couldn’t get out of Blackboy Crescent fast enough. Could you?
I didn’t have a choice, if you recall.
Sorry, I didn’t mean it to sound so judgemental.
Really? The further you got from Blackboy Crescent, the more you wore your blue collar on your sleeve. And I know that sounds mangled but you know what I mean.
Keely winced. Because he did. Also because it was true”.
Towards the end of the novel, I began to consider why I was so averse to Winton’s writing in Eyrie. I have been a fan of Winton’s for years, and like so many Australians I hold Cloudstreet in extraordinarily high regard. It’s not that I disagree with what Winton says about class in either The C Word or Eyrie: it’s perhaps that as an early 30 year old, it’s all I know. Perhaps my generation has tired of listening to baby boomers gloat about the days of Whitlam, of not having to pay for their higher education, of having professional stability and a job for life. My reality is that I will struggle for years to even meet the annual salary required to make any payment off my university debt. That I, along with a large majority of my friends, work in a casualised workforce in a constant fight to retain penalty rates, superannuation payments and entitlements. I entered the workforce under a Howard government and WorkChoices and have in reality seen very little improvement despite efforts to repeal this legislation since. So yes, I understand that I am coming from a place of privilege because my parents also worked tirelessly to ensure I was able to go to university; but I carry that debt and I paid for my rent during those three years, with limited financial support. I am not saying any of this as a way of beating my chest and denouncing what Winton is saying – I completely agree that without the emotional support from my Mum I would never have felt the confidence to go back to university in my mid-twenties and forge the career that I love today, and that there are a great number of people in this country who are not so lucky. But middle-aged Australia’s obsession with class and the idea that it is “something foul, something embarrassing” as Winton claims in The C Word, is not what will help generations below them gain mobility or choice: that can only come from action and opportunities.
So with all this in mind, does Winton succeed in writing his great Australian novel? No. Because in my mind it is not a mirror to contemporary Australia: it is a mirror to the Australian dream of the 1970’s. I don’t identify with Eyrie in the way I identified with Tsiolkas’ Barracuda. I saw a lot of myself in Barracuda’s Dan Kelly: someone who’s parents worked ridiculously hard to offer opportunities for greatness as a young person, but who backed that up with emotional support in their child’s need to work out who they are, what they want to be and what their place in the world is. Dan Kelly’s ability to have a second chance is to me what social mobility is all about: the difference being that Tsiolkas places this within the context of a greater story of both the character and of the country he calls home. But what Eyrie also ignores is that current Australia is not just struggling with a class system, it’s struggling with a greater problem of acceptance. In my mind the ultimate prevention to social mobility is denying those requiring asylum or seeking a better life a right to enter Australia. When we think about class success stories in Australia we often talk about migrants who came with nothing and worked endlessly despite little support and a culture of fear and created opportunities for their children to build the life they wanted. This is what Tsiolkas gets across that Winton does not, and this is the success of contemporary Australia, not just a short-lived policy from forty years earlier.
Shortly after finishing Eyrie, I found myself able to slow down for the first time in awhile. We all have times in our lives where time moves quickly, yet at the same time slower than ever. After a ten-week contract that required commuting an hour each way Monday to Friday, suddenly before I knew it I was back to my freelance life. After weeks of trying to make quick and easy breakfasts that could be eaten as I ran out the door (like Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls’ Vanilla Chia Pudding), finally there was time to slowly potter in the kitchen and enjoy breakfast slowly. As the weather starts to cool, it’s also a good time to look at alternatives to porridge for the winter months (yes, despite what I wrote in my White Girls post, I still eat a lot of porridge!). This is another recipe from my lovely friend Yasmeen who posts at Wandering Spice. I’ve used quinoa here rather than cous cous to make it a wheat free start to the day, after soaking the quinoa overnight to make it easier to digest. You can just do this for the half an hour it takes to shower and get dressed too – this is what I do with oats for porridge and it makes a big difference to the cooking time, creaminess as well as to my tummy. The quinoa was cooked in milk and honey, then topped with some homemade apricot and vanilla compote, chopped almonds and a splash of orange blossom water which made our whole apartment fragrant and was a burst of energy on a cloudy morning.
If you yourself are on a search for a great Australian novel, you could do worse than make your way through this list from Readings of 20 Australian Books to Read In Your 20’s. Specifically chosen as novels that retain an Australian voice whilst exploring ideas of change and periods of turmoil, I heartily recommend to those who haven’t already had the pleasure, A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz.