The Shepherd’s Hut
- By Tim Winton
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- 288 pp.
- Reviewed by Andrew Herrfurth
- August 17, 2019
A young man battles to survive in the harsh Australian outback.
Young Jaxie Clackton becomes orphaned after his abusive father dies in an accident. Fearing blame for the death due to their mutual antagonism, Jaxie takes off into the Australian outback, determined to walk hundreds of miles to his girlfriend, Lee, so that the pair can abscond into a new life for themselves.
Partway to his destination, he comes across the titular shepherd’s hut, which is home to Fintan, a defrocked Irish priest with a mysterious past. The two strike up a curious sort of friendship, alternately defined by its honesty and hampered by each character’s cageyness.
This relationship delays Jaxie’s journey to reach Lee until circumstances force him to leave the hut and continue on. Jaxie’s backstory is peppered into all of this via his own recollections, allowing the reader insight into how he became the person he is.
The first thing a reader will likely notice about this novel is that it’s written from the first-person perspective of a young man, with all the colorful (read: vulgar) language and vivid (read: also vulgar) idioms that one would expect.
While this may seem initially grating to some — including myself — I found that, as I continued, I became acclimated to the style. Author Tim Winton places terms in an understandable context so that even those unacquainted with Aussie lingo won’t have much trouble piecing together meanings. The usage of this realistic, unfiltered language brings Jaxie to life.
The Shepherd’s Hut is resplendent, too, with excellent descriptions of the outback and the struggles Jaxie must overcome just to eke out a living. The visceral images of hunting kangaroos and the desperation of thirst create a marvelous sense of realism that made me feel like I was native to a country I’ve never set foot in.
Take, for instance, a moment when Jaxie is trying to set up camp:
“The shadows got long. And the ground got a bit more stony. The dirt was pink now, red in patches, and soon big gum trees showed up. York gums that drop their bark from halfway up the trunk…I kept on till it was nearly dark and then I come to a nice red dirt clearing and give it away for the day. Scuffed up some bark and sticks and got a fire going…The fire was decent. There was heaps of wood all round, dead stuff, grey and papery from white ants and it burned beautiful. And that was something at least.”
Winton gives as much attention to starting a campfire as he does to prepping a goat for slaughter, and he does so in a way that’s never boring. But I would’ve liked to have seen more development of the relationship between Jaxie and Fintan, who do not meet until the second half of the book. Jaxie is guarded with the older man for various reasons, which also hampers greater exploration of the two characters.
Furthermore, a significant portion of their time together is waved away with a sentence mentioning the passage of time. I felt cheated by this as I would have liked to get a closer look at how their eventual friendship developed.
This lack of development made the end of the novel feel rushed and unearned, to the point of seeming like it was pulled from another book entirely. Yes, the prologue hints at this climactic turn, but it ultimately comes off as an attempt to inject a shot of drama into a story that was doing fine without it.
The book effectively ends on a cliffhanger, with Jaxie’s story unresolved. Considering the extent to which Winton seems to want the reader to be interested in his protagonist’s life, it’s curious that he chose to dedicate the final pages of the book to an action sequence rather than a satisfying conclusion to Jaxie’s quest.
Overall, while The Shepherd’s Hut is enjoyable, its profundity never quite matches the quality of its prose. But while you shouldn’t go into this book expecting any great revelations on the human condition, thanks to the verisimilitude of Winton’s writing, you’ll find yourself right alongside Jaxie as he makes his way in the outback.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2018.]
Andrew Herrfurth lives in Maryland and graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 2018 with a degree in English and a minor in creative writing. Like so many people, he is an aspiring author.