Book Review: Dirt Music

Dirt MusicDirt Music
Author: Tim Winton
Originally Published: 2002
Length: 411 pages
Why I read it: Book club selection
Where I got it: Library

Quick thoughts: An exceptional evocation of the Australian land with a riveting story to pull everything together.

“Dirt music” isn’t a term I’m at all familiar with, and I’m still not sure whether it is common Australian slang or just something Tim Winton came up with on his own. Regardless of the term’s provenance, it ends up being a fitting choice for the title of this novel. Before venturing into the why, however, it’s probably best to start off with the definition as given in the book: “Anything you could play on a verandah. You know, without electricity. Dirt music.”

Oddly enough, music doesn’t even begin to enter the picture until the story is well underway. We begin in an isolated fishing village on the west coast of Australia, where a glut of foreign money spent on the rock lobster harvest has made life very comfortable for residents. So comfortable, in fact, that they think nothing of discouraging interlopers and poachers with lawless displays of armed violence. Thrown into this mix is a love triangle of sorts: Jim, the leader of the fishing community; Georgie, the outsider who is filling the void left by Jim’s dead wife; and Luther, the poacher who sparks in her the need to escape the life she has come to accept.

It’s only when Luther is being run out of town that we really discover his musical background, along with the devastating reason why he left that music behind. In his subsequent travels through the outback, the theme of music begins to take on a much more elemental connotation – as though the land itself is thrumming with some vibrating note or chord. “Dirt music” might be described in the book as acoustic sound, but Luther’s journey into the wild begins to give it a different meaning, as though the dirt itself is possessed of some primeval music that echoes melodies from millennia past. In many ways, the land itself becomes a character which looms large over the story.

As Luther’s purgatorial journey into the outback moves toward a featured role in the narrative, it begins to take on take on echoes of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – something which seems intentional based on a few references to that novella early on in the book. There is also a strong connection to the romantic notion of a walkabout, that lone journey into the bush that is both spiritual and sacred. Of course, that’s not the sort of writing that will appeal to readers looking for a gripping story. For those who enjoy revelling in the creative use of language and literary themes, though, this might be right up your alley. Dirt Music is full of prose that resonates with terrestrial harmonies. Some moments are vast and expansive. Others are painfully intimate. Scattered between are moments of levity and biting humour. It’s a symphony in words—an oratorio celebrating the wondrous beauty of the Australian land, and a requiem for the death of innocence.

From the Publisher:
Luther Fox, a loner, haunted by his past, makes his living as an illegal fisherman — a shamateur. Before everyone in his family was killed in a freak rollover, he grew melons and played guitar in the family band. Robbed of all that, he has turned his back on music. There’s too much emotion in it, too much memory and pain.

One morning Fox is observed poaching by Georgie Jutland. Chance, or a kind of willed recklessness, has brought Georgie into the life and home of Jim Buckridge, the most prosperous fisherman in the area and a man who loathes poachers, Fox above all. But she’s never fully settled into Jim’s grand house on the water or into the inbred community with its history of violent secrets. After Georgie encounters Fox, her tentative hold on conventional life is severed. Neither of them would call it love, but they can’t stay away from each other no matter how dangerous it is — and out on White Point it is very dangerous.

Set in the dramatic landscape of Western Australia, “Dirt Music” is a love story about people stifled by grief and regret; a novel about the odds of breaking with the past and about the lure of music. Dirt music, Fox tells Georgie, is “anything you can play on a verandah or porch, without electricity.” Even in the wild, Luther cannot escape it. There is, he discovers, no silence in nature.

Ambitious, perfectly calibrated, “Dirt Music” resonates with suspense and supercharged emotion — and it confirms Tim Winton’s status as the preeminent Australian novelist of his generation.