The first third of the novel, which follows Jaxie as he struggles to stay alive, is enthralling storytelling. Winton, who is one of Australia’s most celebrated writers, twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize, makes Jaxie’s isolation compelling: there may not be dialogue, or character interactions, but Jaxie’s voice propels the story, and is revealing as he shifts between his present circumstances and his past. We get a sense of the torment he has survived, but we also see the toll it has taken: Jaxie is deeply troubled, violent and prone to overreaction. These are reactions, defences, but they’ve become so ingrained it’s unclear whether Jaxie can ever recover. We see he can love (yes, his cousin Lee; yes, it’s complicated), but the hate pours off him.
Jaxie is put to the test when he stumbles across a shepherd’s hut, home to Fintan MacGillis, a lapsed Irish priest being kept in a permanent exile. Despite initial wariness, Jaxie is drawn into a sense of fragile community and communion, a hint of the peace he has been seeking. He knows, though, that it can’t last.