Last night I completed The Riders – a book I galloped through, (oh dear, cliche and pun at once) because it is a thriller moving at such a pace – but it deeply disturbed me with the inner workings of the character Scully. The novel traces his ever maddening desperation to recover his lost love – a wife who fails to arrive into a new life in Ireland that she had requested as a move from Fremantle in Western Australia. When Scully had completed a renovation of an ancient cottage in the Irish hills, the woman sent his 6 year old daughter to him alone – no explanation – so we travel to Athens and a Greek island, Paris and Amsterdam looking for his wife, while Scully sinks into the lowest behaviour of his life, and his daughter victim to it.
I hated the journey this time – yet couldn’t but admire his prose. The depths of Scully’s disintegration infuriated me for the sake of his daughter – yet I couldn’t help wanting to know if he’d find his errant wife somewhere. It was a needle in a haystack odyssey with a surprising result. And his dependence on recapturing the apparently lost relationship nearly destroys him and his daughter. In that, the book is utterly credible.
His daughter Billie was the voice of sanity, the long suffering Christ carrier in the journey – her face literally marred by the adventure – her head ravaged by a German Shepherd in Greece – a crown of thorns she wore, with minimal medical attention, as Scully indulged the demons in his heart. So I empathised with the child all along the route, while hating his drunkenness, his rat cunning and his surrender to a dark self indulgence, that I have known only too well from both sides, as a boy, as a youth and in pastoral ministry! The neglect of Billie’s welfare is iconic of the fierce concentration on the fortunes of the self.
Winton has created a profile of Australian male character that rings loud and true. One of the reviewers quoted in the fly leaf said that too. I add that he plumbed the depths of an unhinged Aussie manhood.
As with other stories Winton has a redemptive angel in this story – a true depiction of Jesus in a character, in this case a child – an almost 7 year old – a lone upholder of sanity and virtue when all around is surrender to despair. In Scully’s final drunken self abandonment the seven year old upholds him, takes control of purse and travel documents – even advocates for him when in police custody. The same awareness of Jesus is true in Cloud Street and That Eye the Sky. It becomes far more subtle in his later books: Dirt Music, Breath, and Eyrie. I struggle to identify the presence of Jesus as a character in those stories – yet those stories too are redemptive in outcome.
It seems Winton was about 31 when The Riders was published in 1994 – an astonishing maturity for someone so young. It is utterly humbling. Finally to say – Winton’s ability to depict the essence of a city or place is staggeringly accurate – and seems to arise from his attention to the details of his own place. The characterisation of places in the 1990s, rural Ireland, Athens, Paris and Amsterdam seems objective, not ethnocentric with him, upending cultural hubris like an Isaiah or Jeremiah of the Old Testament. What a feast of a novel that I so disliked in the rush and tumble of its plot and trajectory!