Winton is a writer particularly skilled at showing the hidden emotional depths of hard men for whom sentimentality seems anathema. Reviewer Cathleen Schine described Winton as a “practitioner of what might be called the school of Macho Romanticism.” Many of his male characters are strong on the surface, conceal their feelings through silence or crude talk and refuse to divulge the emotionally complicated aspects of their past. Jaxie, the teenage protagonist of Winton’s new novel states “Our stories. We store them where moth and rust destroy.” I found Winton’s previous novel “Breath” utterly captivating in this respect for the way it describes the tentative friendship between two solitary boys and their desire to surf. “The Shepherd’s Hut” focuses on the life of another hard-edged teenage lad who is in the midst of a crisis. The novel is structured almost like a thriller opening with Jaxie gunning it down a rural road in a speeding vehicle and the novel gradually unfolds to reveal how he got to this point. He’s someone left without any support network having been slighted by his community and born in an emotionally and financially impoverished household. He refers to his abusive father as “Captain Wankbag” and after a shocking accident, Jaxie is left to fend for himself in the Australian wilderness. His journey and the connection he makes with a reclusive hermit is a sobering take on the erosive effects of solitude, but also the ultimate tenacity of the human spirit.
Boys like Jaxie are understandably designated as troublemakers for their harsh language and aggressive attitudes. He describes how his behaviour led to him being so ostracised and feared by his fellow classmates and teachers at school, they felt relieved when he dropped out. He describes how his energy can’t be contained “Christ, you could burn a skyscraper down with what’s in me.” As difficult as he must be in person, it’s also challenging for the reader to like at times for the disparaging way he refers to “blacks” and “poofs”. But he’s someone that’s grown up in an isolated environment dominated by straight white people. As abrasive as Jaxie is, it’s still easy to have empathy for him. He feels he must be totally self-reliant after his mother died from illness and no one came to his aide when his father beat him multiple times. But going alone in the wilderness and in life brings many perils with it. His plight trying to survive is arduous and bloody. Winton's writing evocatively captures the terror of self reliance.
As challenging as it is being on his own, Jaxie encounters different challenges when he meets and bonds with a mysterious old Irishman named Fintan living in a secluded old hut. There's a painful hesitancy as the men don't know whether they can trust each other either with their physical or emotional safety. Winton gets so well how difficult it is to form connections with other people because it means making yourself vulnerable: “It’s a dangerous feeling getting noticed, being wanted. Getting seen deep and proper, it’s shit hot but terrible too. It’s like being took over. And your whole skin hurts like you suddenly grew two sizes in a minute.” The psychological journey these two go on feels deeply meaningful and I connected with the story so strongly in the way it demonstrates how people hide themselves in different ways. The novel powerfully shows how there is a kind of security in solitude, but also a price to pay for going it so perilously alone.