Eyrie by Tim Winton

In brief: Keely’s life has gone downhill rapidly. Alone in a flat on the tenth floor, he meets his childhood friend Gemma and her grandson Kai. Can he rescue them?

The good: Winton’s prose is always loaded with meaning – from sarcasm to wit.

The not-so-good: People who like a neatly packaged ending with be disappointed.

Why I chose it: Sent to me by
The Reading Room
– thank you Anna!

Year: 2013

Pages: 424

Publisher: Penguin

Setting: Fremantle and Perth’s suburbs, Western Australia

My rating: 9.5 out of 10

If anyone asks me about Tim Winton, I tend to reply – “Oh Cloudstreet – what a fantastic book!” (a book that can’t be ruined despite being studied in high school is extraordinarily great in my book). After reading Eyrie though, I’ll be adding it to my spiel.

Eyrie is different from Winton’s preceding novels in that it takes place completely within a city – Fremantle, Western Australia to be exact. (You can argue that Fremantle is a part of Perth, but the locals would argue that ‘Freo’ has its own bohemian atmosphere and sense of community, worlds away from the Big Bad Soulless City). Eyrie is set on the tenth floor of an ugly sixties apartment block, where the protagonist Tom Keely (or just Keely) resides after the loss of his high profile job, wife and house. He’s drinking and medicating himself into oblivion in the middle of a West Australian summer.

Keely is jaded too. West Australians will take particular delight in the sarcastic taunts at a state that’s growing out of control like an unruly teenager as mining becomes the king:

‘Port of Fremantle, gateway to the booming state of Western Australia. Which was, you could say, like Texas. Only it was big. Not to mention thin-skinned. And rich beyond dreaming. The greatest ore deposit in the world. The nation’s quarry, China’s swaggering enabler. A philistine giant eager to pass off its good fortune as virtue, quick to explain its shortcomings as east-coast conspiracies, always at the point of seceding from the Federation. Leviathan with an irritable bowel.

The great beast’s shining teeth were visible in the east…For while Perth had bulldozed its past and buried wits doubts in bluster, Fremantle nursed its grievances and scratched its arse.’ (page 5)

I adored this statement as despite its brevity, it describes Perth exactly. Always comparing itself to the eastern states of Australia and finding itself inferior (No Starbucks! Krispy Kremes must be hauled across the country in overhead lockers to satisfy the masses in between the McMansion, jet ski, boat, 4 wheel drive and V8 Commodore ute). Fremantle ingrains itself in its history and its creativity, while the city (Perth) is about money, football stadiums and a quay that nobody wants. I loved the biting satire and I hope this translates to readers who aren’t familiar with the complexes of Western Australia.

One bakingly hot day, Keely meets someone on the breezeway outside his flat (it’s not on trend enough to call it an apartment). It’s Gemma, a childhood neighbour, who his parents regularly took in when her father hit her mother. Gemma’s with Kai, who Keely soon finds out is not her son, but her grandson. Gemma looks faded, worn out – life has not been kind to her. Her only daughter is in gaol and she’s working nightfill in a supermarket to make ends meet. Keely is fascinated by Kai – a lost figure at the age of six, strange and reserved. Keely couldn’t save the wetlands in his former job (even though that smacks of corruption), but perhaps he can save Keely and Gemma… Keely becomes entangled in their lives, moving him out of his lonely eyrie and forcing him to glimpse the world that’s going on around him. Contact with his mum, former colleagues and ex-wife show that Keely’s really not right, but what is it? Drink, drugs or something organic? As it becomes evident that Keely can’t solve all of Gemma and Kai’s problems, his world begins to collapse.

Despite Keely having a lot of problems – money, drink, medication to name a few – he’s not really a likable character. He’s not someone you’d take home (even his mum leaves him out on the couch and verandah) and his quest to save Kai didn’t really endear him to me. Was it the lack of get up and go, to wallow in his problems rather than fix them? Was there something wrong with Keely? I did love his cynicism and he came out with some wonderfully acerbic statements about his environment (but Mr Winton, not enough about the Fremantle Dockers [Aussie Rules football team]). As he’s scratching the bottom, Keely’s not afraid to tell it how it is or act in desperation (even if it’s somewhat stupid desperation involving driving around posting anonymous postcards). Gemma is fed up, impatient with what life has dealt her but she has an honesty that Keely lacks. Keely won’t face up to the issues – he takes too many pills and drinks too much, but even Gemma (who he appears to respect occasionally) can’t fix it. Not can his mother, who rose through the working classes to go to university and become a respected person of the western suburbs (one of Perth’s gentler and more expensive areas). Perhaps it’s the gentrification of Keely’s mother that causes him to lose respect for her. Oh sure, he does turn to her in times of need like any son, but I think he feels she’s a traitor to her class. Keely desperately wants to be seen as one of the working class, despite that he’s been on television and had the big house and boat. Even a job washing dishes can’t bring him down to his roots.

But what about Kai? Kai’s an odd little boy, an old soul lost. He’s certain he won’t grow to be old and can’t stand falling asleep. A deep fascination with Scrabble at age six and balconies. Keely knows there something wrong with him and wants to fix him, but doesn’t know how. Kai’s childhood is nothing like Keely’s was and Keely can’t replicate it.

Winton’s language is as always, beautiful. Every word is crafted just so and short sentences describe big scenes and feelings. It’s a work of art. Fans of quotation marks for speech will be disappointed (Winton doesn’t use them) but the lack of them helps the speech to flow uninterrupted.

This is a book that you won’t forget in a hurry, if ever. A must.

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11 thoughts on “Eyrie by Tim Winton

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  1. Phew, if I ever had any doubt about reading “Eyrie” then it has completely disappeared after reading your review. I love your little bit of satire as well. Fortunately I know Fremantle fairly well so hopefully I will appreciate the book as much as you obviously have done.

  2. I skimmed this review just in case there were spoilers – I’m 3/4 of the way through as I type. But I’m also loving the language – the way Winton makes our Aussie vernacular sing is rather special.
    Keely is bugging me – Winton’s lost male story line is stretching a little thin for me – I hope he gets through his mid-life crisis soon!

    I’ll pop back when I finish 🙂

  3. I’ve just finished reading this great book but am feeling so ambivalent about the ending. Not sure of it as it hasn’t seeped into my pores yet but I’m almost feeling stranded on the 10th floor. Please help me.

  4. Just finished reading Eyrie….liked your review. Believe it or not, this is my very first Tim Winton and yes Im an avid reader! Just couldn’t get into others at the time, but will have to revisit them I think! Lots of people bagging Gemma/Keely as unlikable and very very flawed…as a GP who deals a lot in mental health and also comes from a VERY working class background (Koondoola anyone?) I recocgnise them and can’t believe how accurately he has drawn Gemma in particular. I grew up with Gemma’s. They are out there, real, flawed, but generally doing their best. I thought it an amazing book, however kept willing Keely to for god’s sake get a head MRI!

  5. Some how i’ve fallen off your list of followers. Missed your weekly posts.
    Have tried [twice to sign up but with no response .

    1. Hi Pam,
      As far as I can see, you’re not subscribed to the blog using the email you’ve used in your comment. There appears to be another similar email subscribed quite some time ago.
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