Tim Winton is something of an Australian national treasure – four-time winner of the Miles Franklin Award plus one shortlist from 10 novels, twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize, numerous Australian Premier’s Literary Awards and any number of adaptations of his books and short stories for stage, television and film.
Whilst his earlier Cloudstreet (1991) is regarded as a seminal Australian novel and taught in schools across the Commonwealth, Dirt Music (2001) is garlanded with more acclaim and awards. A film, to be directed by Phillip Noyce starring Rachel Weisz and Colin Farrell, is currently in development (but don’t hold your breath – it’s been ‘in development’ for a number of years).
Forty year-old Georgina ‘Georgie’ Jutland is in a rut of domestic tedium and social isolation. Privileged white upper middle-class background from the “Perth dress circle” counts for nothing as she finds herself in the (fictional) isolated fishing settlement of White Point a few hours drive out of Perth.
Having rebelled at a young age against her mother and younger sisters’ constant interest in superfluous shopping trips, Georgie has made her own way in life – including dropping out of law and training as a nurse. A stint in Saudi Arabia left her exhausted and disillusioned with her chosen profession – to the extent she reinvented herself again.
Now, two or three years later, she finds herself playing house with taciturn widower Jim Buckridge and his two young teenage sons. Made hugely wealthy by the fishing boom of the 80s with sales of lobster, abalone and prawn to the Asian market, Jim is cock of the (virtually) lawless town, a town with its own violent secrets and where “nearly every owner-skipper had himself a trophy house built with the proceeds of the boom.”
But money hasn’t bought class to the isolated township. “Even after the boom when many families became instantly – even catastrophically – rich and the law came to town, they were, in any estimation, as rough as guts.”
Georgie is very much the outsider – partially through choice, in part due to a degree of suspicion by the locals. So when by chance early one morning she sees evidence of a ‘shamateur’ illegally poaching the fishing waters, Georgie feels no compunction to “protect millionaires from one bloke and his dog.”
Her decision sets in motion an epic of a story that takes in the vast, watery landscapes of the northern extremes of Western Australia, the lives of several residents of White Point and brings to the fore Georgie’s relationship, past and present, with her family.
Nothing remains secret for long in White Point: even Lu Fox’s pre-dawn forays. The killing of his dog and torching of his dilapidated 4WD gets the message across. But by then Georgie, drawn to a local who is more of an outsider than she, has already put her relationship with Jim to the test. Georgie is in the thrall of a White Pointer who has read extensively and yet remains something of a mystery, surrounded as he is by tragedy. Neither would call it love, yet they cannot stay away from each other, united as they are in their own form of grief and struggles in coming to terms with a sense of loss and their wrecked lives.
Forced as he is to leave White Point, Lu heads north to the (fictional) archipelago of Coronation Bay in the far north, seeking, as he is, isolation and solace. Initially, Georgie attempts to deal with her loss by immersing herself in more of the same tedious routine.
But, as the novel simultaneously unfolds, layer by layer, Lu’s journey to the north and Georgie’s downward spiral, so Dirt Music heads inevitably towards a momentous finale that may – or may not – have the ending both have been seeking.
It is a powerful, evocative story. This is not a tour guide through the red dirt or pristine white-sanded beaches of Australia. Instead, Dirt Music is at times “like wading through barbed wire”, the stunning idyllic beauty of the islands susceptible to violent cyclones, plagues of mosquitoes, intense heat and more. The destructive bigotry of the bogans of White Point sits alongside the emotional sterility of wealthy coastal suburban Perth.
Dirt Music is a story of a journey. On one, overt, level it is the story of Lu Fox’s journey to the north, the people he meets, the dangers he faces. Yet it is also about life’s journey, the balance between the choices we make and the events around us we cannot control. All three main characters (Georgie, Lu and Jim) each go on a personal journey of self- discovery, sometimes interconnected, more often in isolation. Damaged, like the land around them they are all three raw, rough and flawed.
Winner of the 2002 Miles Franklin Award (and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize), Dirt Music is multi-layered and complex with striking imagery, memorable characters and, typical of Winton, a fascinating and wholly engaging storyline.