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Originally published Sunday, June 22, 2014 at 6:05 AM

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Tim Winton’s ‘Eyrie’: danger on Australia’s western edge

“Eyrie,” the new novel by distinguished Australian novelist Tim Winton, is the suspenseful story of Keely, a down-and-out man who must find a sense of purpose when a friend and her grandson are threatened.

Special to The Seattle Times



by Tim Winton

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 432 pp., $27

A recurring theme in fiction (and real life, come to think of it) concerns people hitting rock bottom — usually with a shot at redemption. Think of “Money,” Martin Amis’ chronicle of a filmmaker’s downward spiral, or the novel and movie versions of “The Lost Weekend.”

The latest example is “Eyrie,” a brilliant tour de force by Tim Winton, author of “Cloudstreet” and “Dirt Music” and one of Australia’s most distinguished novelists.

Winton’s turf is Australia’s far-off western coast, particularly around his native Perth. In Winton’s eyes, it’s a land of stark contrasts. Highflying new urbanites, fueled by a booming economy in mining, live alongside hardscrabble, blue-collar workers. Rampant environmental destruction stands in stark contrast to the beauty of the natural environment it threatens.

In this fractured world, Tom Keely has almost given up the fight to do some good. Once a prominent environmentalist, Keely has fallen far from grace; once a familiar figure to the public, he now lives in drunken, broke, divorced obscurity. (The scandal that brought him down is only hinted at.) He spends a lot of time staring out over the city from his seedy high-rise apartment.

Keely is the black sheep of his overachieving family. His sister is a highflying banker, his mother a nurturing and socially aware social worker. And the memory of his late father, a larger-than-life champion of the underdog, casts a long shadow over rudderless Keely.

Then fate throws our man a curve, in the form of someone from his past who moves into his building: Gemma, a childhood friend who as a teen lived with the Keelys to escape her abusive family home. Inevitably, her life again intertwines with Keely’s.

Funny and sharp, once a beauty and still alluring, Gemma now has a life that is, if possible, an even worse train wreck than Keely’s. Exhausted all the time, always on the verge of economic disaster, she works the night shift stocking grocery shelves while raising her 7-year-old grandson because her daughter, the boy’s mother, is in prison.

The boy, Kai, is precocious and prone to eerie visions and premonitions. He’s also a touching combination of vulnerability and resilience. Some of the book’s best moments are the tender scenes between him and Keely, as the older man clumsily figures out how to be a father figure.

Winton’s gift for pell-mell pacing kicks in when Kai’s father, a bottom-feeding hoodlum, starts threatening Gemma and Keely, trying to shake them down for money. (Never mind that they haven’t got any. The hood is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and he hasn’t quite worked that one out.) The escalating danger forces Keely, the wreck of a human, and Gemma, the battered but still standing survivor, to find a shared sense of purpose.

Winton’s headlong, bracing prose is augmented by a keen ear for Aussie-brand slang: A breakfast of bacon and eggs becomes “pig and bum-nuts” and a mosquito attack leaves a person “mozzie-flogged.”

Language like that helps make “Eyrie,” despite its grim premise and air of danger, very funny at times. (Check out the book’s opening scene, as Keely deals with the mother of all hangovers.) The book is rewarding in other ways, too, and as a whole it’s a virtuoso performance by a writer Australia rightly calls a national treasure.

Adam Woog’s column on crime and mystery fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.

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