As with Breath, the most prominent places in Tim Winton’s fiction are reserved for the landscape. The last 100 or so pages of 2002’s Dirt Music is a glorious piece of writing that plunges us into the very heart of darkness of the North Western Australian tropics. You can almost feel the sweat trickling down your neck as you plunge into this wilderness with the author and Luther Fox.
Luther Fox is the sole survivor of his extended music playing ‘family’. Having given up music, Lu now makes his living – survives, we should say – as a shamateur, or illegal fisherman. Lu is tormented by his losses: his family and his music. He’s living on the fringes, but not, or so it seems, particularly unhappy. Disconnected maybe.
In the Eva (from Breath) mold, Georgie Jutland unexpectedly falls into his life. Just by chance. Georgie is looking for something to change the path she’s on. She doesn’t know what, but there is an unmet need, for love certainly, but also for purpose. She’s in a rut, stuck on a path. Like Lu, Georgie has left a big part of her life behind. As a nurse in the Middle East, she was a healer, and a good one. But she can’t heal herself. She’s living a drifting life, rudderless in the nautical terms of the novel. Now Georgie is living as what she calls “a fishwife”with Jim Buckridge, a widower with two kids. To find some semblance of purpose in her loveless life, she takes care of the kids, but theirs is a complicated, loveless relationship.
The town of White Point was ruled with an iron fist by Jim’s father. Jim has followed in his footsteps, and is feared, if not respected by the town. If the town’s social class his Jim firmly ensconced at the top, then Luther Fox is clearly at the bottom. There is history there. Lots of history. Into the mix comes Georgie, an outsider from all this. The scene is set: Jim, rich and at the top, sets the rules; Lu, poor and at the bottom, breaks them; and in between, Georgie, who comes from wealth, but has rebelled against it.
What follows are fumbling attempts at redemption, at throwing off the legacy that we are sometimes harnessed with, at coming to terms with guilt, at the need to find compatible love. For all three, family (especially the parents) casts a long shadow across the paths they must follow. And for Lu and Jim, there is that “grip of place” that also ties them to their destiny. One comes to believe that loosening that grip is the only way to salvation. For the other, the solution may be the same. But courage is required for this kind of striking out.
Lu tries on various ways to break the bonds of what seems like his pre-determined future. Before he meets Georgie, he has lived the life of forgetting. The “project of forgetting” as he calls it.
All this time he has set out willfully to disremember. And some days it really is possible, in a life full of physical imperatives you can do it, but it’s not the same as forgetting. Forgetting is a mercy, an accident.
The three main characters are complicated. Even Jim, the obvious villain, is drawn with sympathy. As Georgie says, in a conversation with a fishing guide,
I’m struggling to figure him out.
And you believe that stuff. You know. God and revenge?
I think Jim believes it. But I don’t think the world is like that. Without some mercy, a bit of forgiveness, I reckon I’d prefer it to be completely random – meaningless. In a sick way, I envy the fact that he believes in something. D’you believe in anything?
Three square meals a day, said Red. And the sound of a screamin reel.
I have really mixed feelings about this novel. The “nature” writing just about overcomes any objections I might have, and can be recommended for that alone. The resolution of the basic plot ending seems somewhat forced and almost fantastic, even though I may have wanted it to end that way in my sentimental heart, it is a bit unsatisfying. Still, a gorgeous read, which I can recommend.