Review: Tim Winton's The Turning - small town life at its bleakest

The seeds of success or failure are sown in youth and in each of 17 stories, 'the turning' refers to a point that shaped each character's destiny

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 October, 2016, 4:36pm

The Turning

by Tim Winton

Picador $255

In a rare public appearance, at the Byron Bay Writer's Festival last year, Tim Winton described himself as 'a provincial writer ... There are two general regions that I write about, and they're joined by a little thread, and that's me,' he told the audience in northern New South Wales. 'I'm not mapping Western Australia, I'm just making up a world of my own and I've got characters that reappear from one book to the next.'

In Winton's latest collection of 17 short stories some of his minor characters are given centre stage.

Set in the fictional coastal community of Angelus, this is small town life at its bleakest: bent coppers, bored adolescents, junkies and violent husbands. Angelus' inhabitants never leave, even if - like Brakey - they move to the city. The seeds of success or failure are sown in youth and in each of the stories, set in the 1970s or the present, 'the turning' refers to a point that shaped each character's destiny.

'The past is in us, and not behind us. Things are never over,' are the parting words of the narrator in Aquifer, who returns as a middle-aged man to the eerie swamp he'd played in as a child.

It is, perhaps, no coincidence that 44-year-old Winton explores mid-life issues. He has a clutch of awards under his belt, with his most recent novel, Dirt Music, set to become a film directed by Philip Noyce, shot by Hong Kong cinematographer Christopher Doyle and starring Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe. But success has never sat comfortably with him. 'I don't pretend it's normal,' he said in Byron Bay. 'I'm an exception.'

As a boy, Winton - a policeman's son, like the ubiquitous Vic - moved to a small coastal town. In Long, Clear View, Vic describes how 'you pine for the city, the spill of suburbs [that] render you ordinary and invisible'. There the similarities end. Tracing Vic from the flush of his first kiss - 'a slick smoothness' in Abbreviation, we meet him again in On her Knees, when the 'old man's shot through' and his mother is cleaning rich people's houses. Vic becomes a lawyer, but aged 44 his past has assailed him. His wife, Gail, sums it up: 'Every vivid experience in your life comes from your adolescence.'

In Small Mercies, Peter Dyson is left to bring up his son, Ricky, and moves back to Angelus. Dyson realises just how bad life is when he hangs 'like a piece of snagged trash' in the swimming pool, 'the water around him was all Band-Aids, floating scabs and hanks of hair'. Back in his hometown, his past haunts him when he meets his teenage love (of sorts), Fay Keenan, now a washed-up drug addict.

While the insidious affect of heroin is exposed in several of the stories, Winton never moralises. In his pared prose, laced with Australian vernacular, his writing is honest and dour, infused with the rhythm of the tides. There's a sense he's writing about the jetsam and flotsam he's grown up with.

The Turning leaves me wondering what became of Raelene, who lives in a caravan park and gets beaten senseless by her husband, Max. The mysterious 'wild boy' who gets both his legs broken in Long, Clear View appears again in Boner McPharlin's Moll. Boner a 'smalltime petty crim' is one of the most compelling characters. He becomes Jackie Martin's teenage obsession. Although she realises some of her dreams, she can never fully 'outgrow the small-town girl I was' because her fate is linked to Boner, who ends up, 'a wild, twisted little man' in a psychiatric hospital.

Some of the stories - Reunion and Immunity - have less punch and the Aboriginal characters lack imagination. But The Turning is a disquieting and powerful insight into Australian battlers who've taken life's slip road.