So much vomit, so little time…

Well, I can’t say I wasn’t warned. What a wild ride Tim Winton’s The Riders ended up being.

Gritty, gut-wrenching and stomach-turning, this novel is a heartbreaking account of love-inspired blindness that sees Scully barrelling frantically forward, dragging his daughter dangerously with him, fuelled by heartbreak and cheap booze.

“Fred Scully can’t wait to see his wife and daughter.He’s got a new life for them all worked out.

He’s sweated on this reunion.

The doors of the airport hiss open.

Scully’s life falls apart.”

I’d heard such varied things about this book that by the time I started reading I really didn’t know what to expect. The bookseller at Federation Square tried to warn me off: “It’s not one of his best you know, why don’t you try Dirt Music instead?” Another friend intrigued me by offering an ambiguous and open-ended: “Oh, really, you’re reading that? I can’t wait to hear what you think about it…”

And when I got to book club last week, this mixed sentiment was plain to see here too. Half the group hated this book, and the other half loved the experience of it. Many were looking for more, some were just happy to take what was offered.

I myself was pretty happy to go along for the ride.

There were, no doubt, times where I was left wondering a great big ‘why?’ – Why would he do that? Why would she put them through this? Why did Winton include that in the story? The character of Irma was one big ‘why’, from start to finish. There were definitely moments when I just wanted to slap the poor sod Scully, to try and snap him out of his stupor.

But in other ways, this novel is a beautiful tale of wanderlust. The story has so much of the gypsy in it, and Scully, Billie and Jennifer seem the perfect nomads. The recount of their bohemian life in Paris, London and Greece is enviable. Equally, it’s fascinating to read a novel by an Australian author, remembering and describing Australia from the outside…the romatisied recall of an Aussie abroad.

Whilst many in the book club found Scully horribly frustrating, in a strange way I actually found his impulsiveness liberating. As someone who has a tendency to over-think things and to make decisions slowly, I found Scully’s pursuit, his absolute abandon an incredible journey to share. The idea of just doing, with little analysis or reflection was completely compelling.

The element of The Riders that I did find difficult was the clear and sharp damage being done to Scully and Jennifer’s daughter, Billie. As is so often the case for child-characters who find themselves swept up in adult turmoil, Billie is abandoned and neglected. The reader is made acutely aware of the child’s emotional and physical distress and it’s horrible. It is only once this stoic seven year old finds in herself an adult strength and takes responsibility for her broken father and their splintered life that the discomfort I felt about her treatment eased somewhat.

At the end of the day, I would hazard a guess that it is mainly how the story ends that polarises readers so much. I won’t spoil it of course, you’ll have to see for yourself, but in short, I liked it, many didn’t.

This is an earthy and very masculine novel, full of sea and hard-work, dirt, piss and vomit. It is at times hyper-realistic, and it is because of this that the reader is caught quite off-guard when Winton introduces the fantastic and the ridiculous (which is often).

If you’re keen on a linear narrative, sensible cause and effect and clear resolutions, this is NOT the book for you.

On the other hand, if you want to get a little drunk on words and reel along with Scully and Billie, go for it – it’s worth the ride!

Have you read The Riders? What did you think? Did you love it or hate it?

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