A rare foray away from his native Western Australia results is possibly Tim Winton’s weakest narrative. The Riders is still beautifully written but its breathless storyline where Scully and his traumatised young daughter, Billie, frantically cross Europe searching for wife/mother Jennifer simply grates. And it leaves so many questions unanswered.
Opening in a wet and miserable Ireland, Scully renovates a remote rundown cottage, purchased on a whim. Apprehensive, so far removed from the Western Australian lifestyle of sunshine and beach, Scully works through his loneliness, buoyed by the soon-to-return pregnant Jennifer and young Billie following the sale of their Fremantle home.
The Riders is at its strongest as Winton introduces Scully, a working-class bloke “…with a severely used face”, slaving away in misery and his memories of a recent history – lyrical and supple prose of more than two years in Europe with his family flitting between London, Paris and the Greek islands. But their sojourn was not in the lap of luxury. Instead, Scully had worked like a dog for cash in heavy duty labouring jobs to enable Jennifer to explore her ’artistic potential.’
After several years on the road, the couple plan to settle in Ireland, renovate and raise their family. Jennifer had returned to Australia to sell their house and settle affairs. But Scully’s world falls apart when seven year-old Billie arrives at Dublin airport alone.
Billie, traumatised and unable to talk to her beloved father, cannot explain what has happened. Confirming she had travelled to London with the seven year-old, so begins a frantic odyssey across Europe where Scully, with Billie in tow, retraces the family’s steps. As a creature of habit, Jennifer will return to a place she knows is Scully’s logic.
A wet and cold out-of-season Hydra is the first call, but the Greek island produces no results yet sets the pace for the rest of the book. Tormented by fear, Scully becomes irrational and desperate in his belief that there’s a logical explanation for Jennifer’s disappearance. Florence, Paris, Amsterdam are crazed ships in the night as father and a resilient daughter pass through, more and more desperate as he fails to find any trail and the money begins to run out.
The momentum continues to rise to an almost breathless level as Scully teeters on the edge, losing his grasp on reality and placing Billie in perilous situations. Yet Billie’s understanding compliance facilitates Scully’s continued obsession as he confronts his inner demons.
A rites-of-passage as Scully comes to understand more about himself and the relationships with his wife, The Riders is both captivating and infuriating. What he does to Billie is beyond comprehension. Ditto what Jennifer does to both of them.
The Riders was shortlisted for the 1995 Booker Prize (Winton’s first) but lost out to Pat Barker and The Ghost Road.