It's not often that my taste and popular taste coincide, but this is one of them. Without doubt my favouriate novelist is Tim Winton, and he and his books have also commonly been at the top of polls conducted in Australia.
Winton writes about people on the edge - on the margins of society, or at the end of their tether, or just on the edge of the vast western Australia coastline. His "tough but spare" writing captures the idiosyncrasies of working Aussies and tells emotional stories evocatively but with a minimum of fuss. His sympathies are clearly with the strugglers and the losers, and although many of their lives are bleak, his characters often find mateship and hope.
Probably his best known book is Cloudstreet, an urban epic of two families who live in the two halves of an old house. The events of the lives are ordinary yet surreal, plain yet deeply moving. It was made into a 5 hour theatre production that never lost interest (there was a meal break in the middle!).
His first novel (and one of my favourites) was An Open Swimmer, the story of a teenage boy who spends his holidays, mostly alone, camping, swimming, fishing and introspecting on lonely beaches on the coast. If you're looking for thrills, you won't find them here, but if you enjoy watching a character grow and struggle within himself, this is good.
His most recent book, The Turning, contained short stories about connected characters in a coastal fishing town. Some want to escape, some have never thought of anything more than the day-to-day. The stories tell of "the darkness and frailty of ordinary people", tender yet gritty stories of hope and hopelessness, family and loneliness. For example, the title story chronicles a woman's spiritual emancipation even while being abused by her partner. Yet somehow through it all, there is hope and a celebration of being human.
But my personal favourite is That Eye the Sky, the story of a family that once tried to live the hippy dream of self sufficiency on a small faming property, but the dream has faded. When the father ends up in a coma, needing care at home along with an aging and helpless grandma, the family situation is definitely bleak. Then into their life comes a mysterious and edgy stranger who offers to do some of the hard work caring for the invalided father, in return for board. He brings both good and evil, hope and defeat into their lives.
The story is told by 12 year old Ort, who observes and dreams. As the world falls apart around them and death and despair visit them, Ort and his mum find renewed hope. Perhaps God, who Ort imagines as a big eye in the sky observing all, may even heal his dad?
The story is wonderfully told, grips me throughout whenever I read it, and so much happens in a relatively short space. The last few pages, simply written in Ort's laconic voice, are some of the most effective writing I have ever read. The book was made into a good film (albeit with some changes to suit a worldwide audience and the different medium), and an amazing stageplay.
If you want a good read, or you want to capture the Aussie spirit, or you want a little hope amid the trials of life, Tim Winton is not to be missed.