Australian writer Tim Winton’s eighteenth and most recent book, The Turning, is a stunning collection of related stories that once again demonstrates his mastery at going for the jugular, probing beyond the comfort zone of his characters to reveal what they would rather not face, while holding them close with a gentle, loving arm. Aussie slang and mannerisms season these extraordinary tales of otherwise ordinary folks, and the end result is intensely compelling and a joy to read.
Surely he could have written this as a novel, but the fact that he didn’t is telling. Stories allow selective glimpses of life in Angelus, a fictional town on the remote southwestern coast of Australia with a cannery, meatworks, wharf, and churches built by convicts. It’s Winton’s home turf, the kind of place that serves as hearth and fuel for his writing. As the individual dramas develop and accrete, a shared dilemma emerges: How are we affected by our memories of the past? Are we sick from what happened in the past, or are we sick from remembering?
About half of the stories focus on Vic Lang and his family, who move to Angelus in the early 1970s when his father Bob takes a job on the police force. As an adolescent, Vic is attracted to a girl without a finger in "Abbreviation," and to a classmate because of a disfiguring birthmark in “Damaged Goods.” Vic’s wife Gail wonders what this says about his feelings for her, the estranged daughter of religious fundamentalists. As she struggles to understand the events that affect her husband and their marriage, Vic soldiers on, vigilant and yet anxious, and he is not alone.
The Turning is rife with characters haunted by childhood experiences. “Aquifer” is a brooding elegy of time and memory: a young boy witnesses a drowning in a swamp, which eventually provides water for nearby residents. As an adult he returns to the swamp, only to find it has dried up and bones are surfacing in the dust. The title story, along with “Sand,” and “Family,” provide a tragic account of two brothers, one a bully and wife-beater, and the other, struggling to find his worth.
Readers hoping for another novel as great as Dirt Music and Cloudstreet will not be disappointed. The Turning shines right up there alongside the best of Winton’s fiction. This is vintage Winton: passionate, wise, devastatingly real, writing from the gut and the heart.
Reviewed by Kathleen Tyau