Update. I gave this to an English friend who read it at that hasty speed that means she couldn't put it down. One of the comments she made afterwoods was 'Is food really like that?' She was struck by how ordinary people seemed to have very sophisticated tastes. The answer is 'yes'. That's why I've been having so much trouble in the UK where food, not to put to fine a point upon it, sucks.
Same with coffee. I don't drink it, but judging by the impressions I get from my many world experienced friends, coffee in Melbourne is the best in the world. Indeed, a friend of mine came back to Manchester from Melbourne a while ago and has been trying ever since to teach the local coffee makers how to make coffee.
Melbourne people don't just love food and love coffee. They are fussy about it too.
So, this is the story that really says how it is. Last time I was in Adelaide, I wandered past an ordinary suburban petrol station and observed the large billboard inviting you in to have a coffee prepared by their barista. Not just any old barista, either. Their barista had a photograph and a name. Even by local standards and expectations that sort of blew me away.
The backdrop is bushfire.
The end sees our hero – and I use that word advisedly – engulfed in flames, along with his father and brother as they fight to save their property. When all is lost they climb into the water tank: they are still going to die, presumably by boiling, but it gives them a few more minutes. Suddenly at the very last moment the wind turns, all are saved. Ah, you think. The artifice of the author. An author can do that. But the fact is bushfires do that. Water has no agency. A tsunami takes all in its path without exception. If one is saved it is because one has fought to do so. A tsunami bludgeons its way forward. A bushfire appears sentient by contrast. It is absolutely true that all properties surrounding a house might be lost, that one house miraculously standing. It is absolutely true that the bushfire of its own volition turns certain death into a reprieve. We city dwellers have not seen this, but nonetheless we have experienced it in some oddly intimate ways.
The last terrible bushfires in Adelaide. Huddled against a low stone wall are a group of people who are going to die. One of them is a reporter and he is describing what is happening on radio as he crouches as low as he can with the others. The background noise is the wailing of people who are about to be burned to death. He now finds out for sure, just before he dies, that he is a true reporter through and through. After all, how else could he do what he is doing? His sense of calm is amazing. So we are all pruriently listening to the distressed sounds of this group of people. And then, at the very last second, the fire changes direction. Certain death is still, in the grand scheme of things, certain, but not immediately foreseeable, at any rate.
Same bushfires. My sister is part of a hundred girls and staff at a retreat bang in the middle of the bushfires. There are many anxious calls to the authorities about them, but they have rescued another such group nearby and nobody even realises these kids are there as well, trapped. Eventually they retreat to the main hall, they put wet towels under the doors to futilely delay the inevitable and they pray. There is nothing they can do. They are about to be burned to death. Suddenly, at the very last minute, the fire changes its mind. It loses interest in them. Moves on elsewhere.
Of course, there are the opposite stories too, the bad luck ones. But the point is that the end of this story is the artifice not of the author, but of the bushfire.
And lips are pursed by sour-faced persons who think there is a difference between a who-done-it-thriller which is widely and enthusiastically read, and literature.
Because, you see, this book won Australia’s major literary award, the Miles Franklin. It is obvious why. It is awarded to a book which is ‘the best’ about Australian life in some way. Tim Winton has won it a hundred times, half of them in abeyance for books he hasn’t yet written but will. I’ve only read one of his books, but if it is any guide, they are richly deserved. So is this one. Quintessentially Australian. Fabulously written.