TROUBLE ON THE TENTH FLOOR

tim wintonBook Review: EYRIE by TIM WINTON

This is a splendid novel. The story is focussed on the life of a burnt-out, incapacitated, environmentalist, Keely. He has fallen into political disgrace, untrustworthy, cast aside, defiled, and divorced. He feels old and defeated, living on the tenth floor of a run-down high-rise building near the Fremantle wharves. He is existing from day to day, drinking his life away, swallowing an assortment of prescription drugs, just waiting for the end. One day he meets a woman, Gemma, who lives on the same 10th floor with a six-year-old boy. She recognises him from an earlier time, when they were both children living in Blackboy Crescent, neighbours in another life.


Gemma, now in her early forties, is brash, street-hard, tough-talking, and busy minding her six-year-old grandson — while her daughter is in prison for drug crimes. The child is strange, intelligent, and knowing far beyond his years, but takes a shine to Keely. The child troubles Keely when he sees him carelessly playing on the 10th floor balcony, climbing onto the railing, the grandmother unperturbed. The three of them make a barely-functioning alliance.

Keely thinks the boy might have autism or Asperger’s syndrome. There’s something wrong; the boy is fearful, has bad dreams that wake him in the night, he sketches dead people and violent scenes, and doesn’t believe he will grow old. Keely looks after him while the boy’s grandmother, Gemma, works night-shift at the supermarket.

Things take a turn for the worse when Gemma uses Keely to help her recover an old car in the possession of her son-in-law. The son-in-law, is a violent young man, indifferent to the boy, or the boy’s mother; his interests are all illegal.

Furious that the old car has been taken away, the son-in-law sends an enforcer mate around to Gemma’s unit to threaten her for money, ostensibly for the sale of the car. She does not have any money, but the son-in-law thinks Keely is her new boyfriend who can come up with $5,000 for the car. Keely is as broke as Gemma. The threats get more frightening, and now involve hurting the child. Gemma refuses to go to the police; she has a history of living on the edge of the law, and thinks that the authorities will take the child away from her for being in a bad environment. Keely knows he must do something to protect the child and Gemma — but what, and how?

The story is interesting, and keeps you turning pages right up to the end. Ahh, but the last two pages are disappointing. It was not a satisfactory ending, but artificial, manufactured to find a way to end the novel, leaving a number of points unexplained.

The novel is set in a harsh world of glaring sun, overpowering heat; Keely barely functioning, getting by with pills, alcohol, and memory loss. The dialogue is sharp and biting, but with its own fascination. The descriptions are harsh and real, with little beauty or joy, except from the child.

All in all it is a great novel, set in Fremantle (Australia), and if you are American or English you might miss a few of the references, but you will read hundreds of crisp metaphors that make sense in any language.

Towards the end of the novel, Keely is given the chance to attend a Vaughan Williams classical concert, he ends up going by himself, embarrassed that he’s “underdressed and pitifully unaccompanied”. He sits next to an elegant older couple. When the classical music starts he is totally absorbed, swept away by the music, stunned by the soloist woman playing like her life depended on it. As it finished:


“He was filled, overcome. And like an idiot he began to weep, silently at first and then in tiny, shaming huffs that were drowned, thank God, by the roaring ovation . . . Keely could not applaud; it was too much. He held his knees as if his legs might fly off, sobbing like a village fool until the silver-haired woman alongside him, a dame of some provenance if posture counted for anything, placed a neatly folded tissue in his lap as if he were an ancient bridge partner whose little weaknesses were old news.
There’s Elgar yet, she said.
I’ll never make it, said Keely.
Come on, she said. No guts, no glory.”

Tim Winton was born in Karrinyup, Western Australia, he has won many literary prizes, including the Miles Franklin Award a record four times. Tim is a patron of the Australian Marine Conservation Society.

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