I didn't think that a Tim Winton novel would become a page turner, but this one did. Or at least, it did for me. It's a simple novel in many ways, and a somewhat unusual one for Winton. The natural world isn't entirely absent, but the setting is essentially urban, alternating between the Western Australian coastal city of Fremantle, and a leafy suburb of Perth just a short distance away. The central protagonist is Tom Keely, a middle-aged, formerly high-profile environmental campaigner whose career has ended in a spectacular public meltdown. Unhappy, divorced and unemployed, self-medicating what might be a neurological illness with drink and pills, Keely has retreated to the isolation of a low-rent apartment block which has seen better days, not so much to lick his wounds as to rub salt into them. There he encounters Gemma, an old childhood friend, and her grandson Kai, a most unusual six year old boy. Drawn into their lives, Keely decides that if he can't save the environment or even himself, he must save Kai.
I love Winton's prose. In this novel, it's neither poetic or lyrical, but Winton's use of the Australian vernacular is commanding and his dialogue is wonderful. (Though readers who really like dialogue to be encased in quotation marks won't find them here.) I also love the complexity of Winton's characters. Keely may be a sad-sack, but Winton gives him a biting wit which prevents him from being completely unlikable. Winton also gives Keely a truly wonderful mother, Doris, who has become one of my all-time favourite literary parents. Gemma is interesting - manipulative, but understandably so - and Kai's intelligence and strangness are depicted with compassion and without sentimentality.
Winton is pointed in his critique of Western Australian society and politics and he grapples with the way class operates in what many Australians like to think of as a classless country. Politicians, environmentalists, the mining lobby are particular targets, but nobody really escapes Keely's (Winton's?) despairing cynicism. The satirical aspect of the work may resonate more with Australians - and even more with Western Australians - than with readers from other parts of the world. But that doesn't mean that readers unfamiliar with the Western Australian scene won't be able to draw parallels with issues in their own society.
I'd give the novel five stars, but its ambiguous ending deflated me a bit. Winton doesn't tie up his novels in a neat bow and I respect his choice in that regard, but I would have preferred something a little more definite. That could just be a measure of my attachment to the characters. When you become attached to characters in a novel, it's hard not to want to know exactly what happens to them.