The Burning Ones

Matthew Tan

Tim Winton, The Shepherd's Hut (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2018).

From the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland, to Uluru in the red center, Australia is known for its natural beauty. There are stunning and timeless monuments of nature, and the possibility to behold them has drawn millions of visitors to our shores. 

Whilst being ferried from one idyllic spot to another, we might forget that between them lies vast swathes of unforgiving desert. The blue of the reef gives way to the red of the rock, resulting from centuries of being scorched under the unrelenting heat of the sun, then plunged into the freezing cold of the night, only to get scorched again. Australia is about as close to a desert island as it gets. What is more, some parts of the Church in Australia minister in these deserts. To give some perspective, the Catholic diocese of Wilcannia Forbes in western New South Wales covers a landmass the size of Germany and France combined, much of it bush or desert. Clergy must drive for hours just to say mass for parishes sometimes made up of just a handful of people. This ministry is vital, for the desert can drive you mad.

Tim Winton’s The Shepherd’s Hut brings desert and church together in a crossover of young adult, survival, and redemption fiction. The protagonist is the teen outcast Jaxie Clackton, who flees the scene of his butcher father’s accidental death. The professional brutality of this man, dubbed “the Captain”, is matched by the brutality of his alcohol-fuelled assaults on Jaxie and his mother. Jaxie knows that staying will most likely lead to accusations of murder by a cop too closely connected to the Captain and probably too wilfully ignorant of the Captain’s abuse. Jaxie has no one to shield him: not his local community (who fear him), not even his mother (whose own abuse has left her unable to give empathy or tenderness to him). The only one who would shield him is his love interest (and cousin), Lee: and it is towards her love that Jaxie moves. 

However, before he can rest in Lee’s bosom (both figuratively and literally), Jaxie must first bake in the sun that hangs mercilessly over the salt-laced deserts of Western Australia. Jaxie wishes to avoid all connection with suburban “civilisation”, for even though that is where he can be kept alive, it is also the place where his accusers lie. In a subtle yet effective inverse of the biblical narrative where one faces the accuser in the desert, Jaxie must avoid his accusers by going deep into the desert. Far from avoiding his accuser, it is in the desert that Jaxie will come to find his redemption.

This ultimate redemption is preceded by a sun, salt and sand-caked baptism. Like much of Western Australia, Jaxie undergoes a long slow desiccation under the blazing sun. This immersion not only overpowers Jaxie, but the detail of it overpowers the reader as well: you almost feel your own lips cracking alongside Jaxie’s. This deliberate inundation is a stroke of genius, for it stretches every moment of the narrative into an eternity, in the same way a desert would. It also melts the distinction between you and Jaxie, as well as between Jaxie and the desert. To paraphrase Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s concept of ‘intervolving’ person and place, the desert and Jaxie become one another. Desert and teen meld into one, and the punishing landscape draws Jaxie’s internal life out. Every tree and dune elicits a memory or desire buried deep within Jaxie, and the Australian desert mirrors the vast desert emerging within Jaxie. The reader will suffer the heat of this internal desert far more intensely than that of the Western Australian sun, as Jaxie’s anger and self-judgement at every small mistake blazes forth in almost every page.

Alone and thirsty for both water and love, Jaxie is a lost sheep. And he gets his shepherd: the priest Fintan McGillis. Instead of a cassock, this priest is found wearing a singlet and shorts, killing a goat outside his hut in the middle of nowhere, and almost unable to say if he even believes in God. Be that as it may, Fintan provides in the desert something that no one, not even Lee, can provide in suburbia: deliverance. Fintan is not only a source of food and water. He is a non-judgemental ear when Jaxie feels like talking, and a verbal punching bag when he does not. Moreover, he alerts Jaxie to the presence of those that exist beyond his anger. Through the almost monastic ritual of cleaning the latrines, through rocks that take account of sins or through recurring discussions on the sacrament of confession that forgives them, Fintan brings into Jaxie’s view the presence of what Julian Carron calls “the other who is at work”. Moreover, Fintan even restores a nobility in the otherwise roughened teen, reminding him that Jaxie has done Fintan a kindness by staying at the hut, and in so doing adding to his life and that of the universe. Christ works in relation, and the relationship between Jaxie and Fintan enact Christ for both of them. Without giving too much away, this is displayed fully and viscerally in Fintan’s final act of saving Jaxie, one that would have the former lifted up for the sake of the latter.

It would be easy to say that a certain sacramentality lies beneath the veneer of violence, incest and exotic expletives in this novel. However, Tim Winton presents us with an uncomfortable possibility: that grace and salvation are woven precisely into the texture of society’s rough, unglamourous and unbelieving sinews, instead of the air-conditioned clinical spaces of a more familiar bourgeois Christianity. More hopefully, we see in The Shepherd’s Hut a raw and primal sacramental vision where everything, even the ferocity of a desert, can unveil a divine economy. Our own inner deserts can be exposed as Jaxie’s and Fintan’s are: through which the Lord, to paraphrase the prophet Hosea, can speak to our hearts and remind us of nobility long forgotten.   

Matthew John Paul Tan is senior lecturer in theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia and works in chaplaincy formation and research at the Archdiocese of Sydney. He is the author of two books, his most recent being Redeeming Flesh: The Way of the Cross with Zombie Jesus. He blogs at Awkward Asian Theologian.