Tom Keely is a collapsed wreck of a man. A disgraced and rejected environmental activist, he now spends his days drunk in his high-rise flat, venturing outside only for a quick stagger to the shops for ballast and a shot of coffee from a sympathetic café owner, before making his paranoid and unsteady way back. Divorced from both his wife and the world, Keely has all but given up on the country and himself until he comes into contact with a childhood acquaintance Gemma and her strange and quiet grandson. Trying to act as a surrogate father becomes a welcome distraction from worrying blackouts and loneliness, but it soon leads down a more dangerous path as Gemma’s life starts to bleed into his own and his suitability as a saviour comes into question.
Winton’s description is strong and vivid, with an early portrayal of an awful hangover in the Australian sun in particular being rich with lurid details, while his dialogue is razor sharp and believable. Keely is witty even in his darkest moments, while Gemma is unpredictable, veering from fragile to manipulative in an instant. Kai himself is quiet and unusual, obsessed with extinction and death. It’s a dark novel, but one peppered with humour and people you can care about.
The open-ended nature of the story is one of its strengths. It’s unsure what is happening to Keely, whether he is suffering from blackouts because of his drinking, drug use or the possibility of a brain tumour. The ending as well is ambiguous, tied in with the dreams and fears of the characters around him. Thematically, it’s the notion of family and the impact it has on children that permeates everything. Kai’s own father is a wasted and violent mess and his mother is in prison, while Keely can’t live up to the idealised view of his dad that has been cultivated ever since his childhood. His father took Gemma and her sister in when they were kids, and this in part adds to his general feeling of uselessness and inadequacy.
This is a novel that can’t be missed. It’s brave, uncompromising and lyrical in its description of a man falling apart at the seams and trying to save other people in an effort to save himself. Although often cynical and bleak, it’s also wonderfully kind-hearted, gripping and frequently amusing. Sure to be one of my favourite novels of 2014.