Tim Winton, That Eye, the Sky (McPhee Gribble 1986)
Before the Meeting: That Eye, the Sky isn’t an obvious choice to discuss at a book club close to 30 years after it was published. It’s even less obvious, given that one or two of our members have disparaged Winton’s work (apart from Cloudstreet) fairly comprehensively. But we were looking for a film–book pairing and a couple of us – at least, I hope it wasn’t only me – remembered being moved by John Ruane’s movie based on this book. And it’s short.
I have mixed feelings about Tim Winton’s work. I loved The Turning, felt that the slow bits of Dirt Country were adequately compensated by other elements, especially the ending, and found The Riders close to pointless. His chapter in Big Surf, last year’s essay on class and his Palm Sunday oration about asylum seeker policy are all marvellous. Generally, I love his sentences. So, though I had loved the film (apart from a dimly remembered unease about the Peter Coyote character), I approached That Eye, the Sky with cautious optimism.
The narrator, Ort (short for Morton), is the 12 year old son of ex-hippies, living poor on the outskirts of a Western Australian city. His father has a car accident which leaves him in a coma then pretty much vegetative until the very last pages. Henry Warburton, a man Ort and his angry older sister Tegwyn have seen living rough under a nearby bridge, turns up and helps the family, bathing the incapacitated father and doing odd jobs. Henry, it turns out, is a bit of a loose cannon, but before his looseness becomes completely apparent he converts Ort and his mother to his peculiar brand of Christianity. Meanwhile, Ort is the only one who sees a strange light that hovers over their little house – possibly an after-effect of Ort having been comatose and died, twice, when he was little and had meningitis; or possibly Ort’s contact with a reality beyond this one.
The complex web of relationships is beautifully done, including Ort’s belligerent friendship with the boy from across the road, but I wasn’t convinced by the magic realism, if that’s what it is, and there were whole swathes where it felt awfully as if Tim Winton was wanting to tell us about the Bible. I was reminded of what someone said about Rob Reiner’s movie Stand by Me: there’s a lot of swearing and other stuff that lets the movie get away with its moments of tenderness. Well, Ort’s matter-of-fact description of bodily functions, and the final revelation of Henry’s moral dubiousness aren’t enough for this book to get away with its spiritual message. Not that there’s anything wrong with non-institutional Christianity – I just don’t believe in it in this book. The device of the uncomprehending child narrator – ‘What Ort Knew’ if you like – becomes annoying as one feels the ventriloquist author behind him:
The forest moves quiet tonight. Jarrahs move a long way up and out of sight. Now and then I hear little animal noises. All these trees are dying, and all these little animals will have nowhere to live. One day the whole world will die and we’ll die too. My back hurts and my bum stings and the backs of my legs too. I’ve got no clothes on out here in the forest. Prickles and burrs and twigs stick in me all over. I rub them in, squirm and shake around. It hurts a lot. I’m hurting myself. I want to hurt myself. I want to.
It made me yearn for the easy flow of Winton’s own unmediated prose.
The meeting: We couldn’t find a copy of the film anywhere. So what we had was dinner, each other and the book!
(That much was uploaded prematurely. Here’s a bit more about the meeting.) Perhaps because two of the six of us arrived late, the discussion of the book kept up for most of the evening. Each new arrival would be asked for an opinion and that opinion would set us all off again.
My impression is that we were all uneasy about the book’s supernatural/ religious/ spiritual elements , which just weren’t integrated into the story. On the other hand, when I singled out as implausible the passage where Ort summarises the Bible, someone said that a childhood friend of his had told him about this fantastic story of a bloke who gets nailed to a tree. So not so implausible.
Interestingly enough, the book triggered a spate of reminiscences: of country childhoods, of vengeful boyhood impulses involving urination, of helplessly witnessing someone’s life spiralling towards disaster.
As someone said, irritating but compelling.