- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 2, 2002

Adversity is supposed to be good for the soul, and to tap unsuspected reserves of gutsiness and cheer. We should, according to conventional wisdom, emerge stronger; battle tested, and ready to fight on. And some do, but in reality many never really recover. Hunkering down in the shadow of death, in thrall to fear and bad memories, they survive, but barely. Sometimes miracles occur, the sun eventually comes out, and moments of redeeming grace and hope do happen. Slick writers make these easy victories, accomplished writers like Tim Winton know better.
Mr. Winton is an Australian whose novel "Cloud Street," detailing the long hard struggle of a loving family to survive wrenching adversities, was nominated for the Booker Prize and recently made into an acclaimed musical. He is one of those rare contemporary writers who understands that life's problems can't be solved by such magic bullets as those tiresome redemptive reconciliations, favored by many contemporary writers, where, in the final chapter, once estranged mothers and daughters automatically erase the past.
Life, as he writes in "Cloud Street," is rather a battle in the corridor that "time makes for us," and one that is fought with love and the will to endure. Now in his latest novel, "Dirt Music," he offers a more conventional, and at times less original account of characters wounded by time and life, as he tells the story of a man and a woman haunted by dark memories in a place that resembles one of the circles in hell.
In fact, most of the inhabitants, of the remote fishing village of White Point, Western Australia, where the story is set, are troubled by the past. Though it is a place of austere beauty, it is also as Georgie Jutland the novel's female protagonist, observes, "a personality junkyard where people still washed up to hide or lick their wounds. Broke and rattled they dropped sail in the bay and never left - surfers, dopeheads, deviants, dreamers the landscape got its hook in and people, stayed."
It is also a violent place where the laws mean whatever the strong and powerful want them to, where punishment is swift and cruel, and nobody talks. Least of all to strangers like former oncology nurse Georgie Jutland, who is now a "lobster moll" living with widower Jim Buckridge and his two young sons, Josh and Brad. Jim, a wealthy fisherman and scion of a powerful local family, not only has some nasty secrets he'd rather not share but is still mourning his wife, who died from breast cancer.
The landscape of sandhills, dry scrubby backcountry, and numerous lonely bays offers scant consolation. The sunlight is harsh, the days hot and wearying it is a fitting setting for people who are either running away like Georgie, or near the end of their tether like Jim and Luther Fox, the man Georgie, awake before dawn, sees fishing in the dark in an unmarked boat. His truck is parked nearby, his dog tethered to it. He's a poacher,who is selling his illegal catch no questions asked to a Vietnamese restaurant owner in the nearest city.
Georgie, who gave up nursing when, on assignment in Saudi Arabia, a favorite patient, died a horrid and painful death from cancer, is haunted by dreams of the disfigured woman. She met Jim and his family while they were vacationing in Indonesia, and returned to White Point with them. Not because she was in love with Jim, but rather she needed a breather, and sensing he had a story to tell, she wanted to hear it.
Georgie's been on the run for a long time: She gave up medical school, rebelled against her very proper mother and three sisters, and became alienated from her wealthy father, when she realized that she was merely "a piece of his success the feisty sailing daughter destined to be the first woman doctor of the clan." She's getting ready to run again, and when her car breaks down and Luther Fox rescues her and takes her to his family farm, a place of withered melon patches and dry trees, she's even more tempted.
The two become lovers , and she learns Luther has never got over the accident that killed his brother, sister-in-law and their two children. They were musicians who played country style music without electricity, "Dirt Music,'' and were on their way play at a party when their car overturned. His mother also died tragically, as did his father, so it's no wonder he's obsessed by his tragic past. When the local fishermen Georgie suspects Jim's involved kill his dog as a warning, Luther decides to head up north to a remote tropical island Georgie saw once, and live like a castaway.
Jim also decides to travel there with Georgie, who still planning to leave agrees to accompany him, as he now talks of making amends for past behavior, and seems to be in "the grip of something , he could neither understand nor control." And the novel now becomes for Georgie, Jim and Luther a stately paced parallel journey towards the same place, which is as much a metaphysical destination as a geographic point. Luther, who is the least convincing character in the novel, more a necessary third member of the damaged trio than a completely credible entity, has instructive encounters on the way an elderly couple, the wife dying, making one last trip; and a young Aborigine who believes his people are in hiding somewhere waiting for him.
Though there are moments of danger and privation for the travelers, Mr. Winton's characters are more bent on overcoming the horrors of the mind and their own pasts, rather than the landscape, which, even when threatening a great storm blows up on Luther's sanctuary, crocodiles circle him, Georgie's plane crashes is merely the stage for these greater battles all three are fighting.
Not as sweetly redemptive as "Cloud Street" there are no comparable innocents, and the characters are more worldly and more sullied by life and the plot is often languid in pace but Mr. Winton again writes with luminous empathy of those dark places of the soul that panic even the seemingly bold and fearless.

Judith Chettle is a South African-born writer now living in Washington.


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