Sunday, March 28, 2004

Not quite music to the ears
Deepika Gurdev

Dirt Music
by Tim Winton. Scribner.
Pages 416. $ 26.

Dirt MusicTIM Winton, heís been rated as one of the finest Australian novelists; and he does make a promising start with his latest offering Dirt Music. The setting for this novel is the sun-punished boondocks of Western Australia, complete with those thorn bushes and sheep farms. The chief protagonists: a forty something adoptive mother, Georgie Jutland, and a brooding poacher, Luther Fox.

Georgie has a bit of an alcohol problem, while Fox leads a rather fractured life. The plot revolves around their intertwined, but often divergent lives as they try to come to terms with their past and make a rather desperate bid to leave it all behind.

Georgie has to win over the hearts of two dissatisfied adopted children. That almost detaches her from her own family in a way that she almost misses out on the news of the death of her mother. Just as she comes to grips with her motherís death, she is bestowed a fortune of sorts by her estranged father. Itís hardly something that she looks forward to enjoying. She ends up giving it all away to help her sister, much to the consternation of her husband.

Fox, on the other hand, presents music in all its possible forms. Together with that, he presents gripping images of nature, whose staccato layering forms most of Dirt Music. That makes for some difficult and harsh reading. Harsh just like the place itís set in. Quite like the people who live there, the words hit fast and furious at a pace that makes the reading seem almost laborious at times.

The characters clearly are a product of their landscape and almost live up to their names. Fox is elusive, lives on the edge of human life, stealing fish from licensed fishermen. His deep sense of loss is felt by the reader, but not explained to great satisfaction. All the other characters that he meets up north right from the dark Darkie to Beaver to the Aborigines too end up living up to their reputations defined largely by the names they have.

The character definition is done well, but it is in the narration of their life stories that the novel loses its charm. It appears Winton set about conveying the personal journeys of the key characters, linking it to the landscape and lifestyle of Western Australia, but somehow the links just donít get established clearly.

Winton has previously impressed with Cloudstreet, but with Dirt Music, the complicated plot of which some critics absolutely love, certainly fails to impress me.

The only saving grace of this otherwise dreary tome are parts of its gripping prose, which bring out the harshness of the Australian outback:

"...the music is jagged and pushy and he for one just doesnít want to bloody hear it, but the outbursts of strings and piano are as austere and unconsoling as the pindan plain out there with its spindly acacia and red soil."

The story touches on human frailties effectively, but somehow doesnít manage to hold at least my attention from beginning to end. Winton has created something here, but I guess like a difficult melody heard for the first time, itís really hard to fall in love with it at first read.