on October 23, 2002
I wanted to like this book, I really did. It's an interesting premise but the book sets the reader up for something and then totally fails to deliver on it. You learn nothing that you didn't already know at the start, which is nothing.
You spend the first eighty pages or so with Scully fixing up his house in Ireland for his seven-year-old daughter and wife who are supposedly coming to meet him. Eighty pages of him scrubbing, grouting, plastering, shoveling, painting, broken by some chatty interludes with a minor character Peter Keneally. Unless you're Joyce or Nabokov or Proust there is no way to make these mundane activities compelling for eighty pages. I would have forgiven Winton at forty pages, but at eighty it's just too dull and the attempt at plot build-up totally off kilter.
Finally, the first climax comes: Scully goes to pick up his wife and child at the airport and only the child emerges from the plane. Where is his wife? We all want to know, of course, as we've spent eighty pages waiting for her and listening to Winton tell us how much Scully is looking forward to it, but his daughter won't tell him, despite the fact that Winton gives us a brief scene with the child on the airplane (which airplane is just another one of the unsolved mysteries in this book) with her mother, so we KNOW at some point the child was with her. Billie, his daughter, will never tell him, and after a while, for no reason that I can possibly discern, other than Winton's attempt to keep up the novelty of "suspense", Scully stops asking her about it. Would you do this as a parent? Wouldn't you find some way to coax this vital info out of your seven-year-old child? But I guess the info isn't so important to Winton.
Scully then decides, as though he's a private detective -- why he doesn't spend his money on a professional we'll never know, but then Winton wouldn't have a novel -- to go look for her. And he takes his daughter with him! Imagine that! A guy dragging his seven-year-old all around Europe. (Nobody in the novel even questions how abusive and unfair this is -- even after the girl suffers a vicious dog attack.) Scully flocks to Greece where he meets a variety of extremely frustrating drunks and bohemians who REFUSE to answer a question directly or provide him (or us) with any tangible information. The story at this point becomes Monty Pythonish, it's so absurd. Here is a desperate man looking for his wife and a cynical friend just toys with him: "Where is she?" "She? She?" "Come on Arthur. [...]." "Oh dear."
Winton deliberately tantalizes us with the bare bones of a thriller without giving us any of the meat such a genre requires. Why? Is he being postmodern? That could be his defense, but then why does he try so hard at being "realistic"?
Then Scully meets a woman, Irma, en route to Italy, who, based ona photo she plucks from his wallet, claims she saw his wife at a hotel in Greece with another woman. Aha, the reader says. Finally, a morsel of information -- we're halfway through the book now -- might be given. Another false lead. Scully doesn't believe her, I guess because Irma's a bit of a floozy, and so he hardly probes into the idea of his wife being with a woman, hardly probes into any idea at all and yet insists on going from city to city of his expat past with his daughter. He refuses to pack it in.
Other coincidences abound that leave you and the characters NOWHERE and with NO ANSWERS. Scully finds himself a murder suspect in Greece, but he flees before any authority has a chance to apprehend him. Why this intrigue? An attempt to keep the pages turning, I guess. A telegram is sent to an Amex office in Florence, purportedly from his wife, telling him to meet him in Paris. She doesn't show. Was it a hoax? Why doesn't she come? Don't expect answers.
I found this book to be contrived, implausible, and in the end, utterly frustrating. Scully's relationship with his wife, with his past, who he thought she was, who he thinks he is, are not remotely explored, not even superficially a la Paul Auster, and are certainly not dramatized. Scully's entire "voyage" has no point, no catharsis, no resolution. It's a big shaggy dog story.
There are strengths: some of the prose is brisk and effective, the secondary characters are quite good and memorable, especially Peter Keneally and Irma, etc. The dialogue is top-notch, and unlike the story, real.
It just fails to add up to a story.
on March 19, 2001
Did I miss the point or did anyone notice that the major thread running throughout this book is child abuse. Suffice it to say that it wasn't intentional but when Scully's daughter shows up alone at Shannon airport traumatized and speechless, unable to explain the whereabouts of her mother, he begins the trek of a lifetime to find her. The book goes on and on as he drags Billie from country to country and bar to bar unable to face the truth, that his wife has left him.
Seven-year-old Billie, is mauled by a dog, her face becomes infected and scared due to improper care. Scully brings her to squalid bars while he gets drunk day after day where she listens to disgusting language. In Amsterdam she is left to her own demise, as her father gets drunk to drown his sorrow. Somewhere around this point Scully is hit over the head and carted off to jail on Christmas Day.
I stuck with this book because the author actually made Scully out to be a devoted dad and a likable character, the beginning of the book was exceptional and I was curious about the ending. It's just too bad he didn't follow through. I do wish there was more tie in to "The Riders", a ghostly group, mysteriously introduced in the beginning but that was also anticlimactic, and given no more than a few pages.
The time came when I felt like enough is enough it's time to take it like a man Scully, and take care of your child. I got to the point where I didn't even care what happened to his wife Jennifer. I find it hard to believe this book was up for the Booker prize. I found it easy to skip whole paragraphs in the middle as Scully's paranoia ran rampart and repetitive. I kept thinking am I missing the point here but every time I doubted my reading savvy I was put off by the underlying child abuse. Kelsana 3/19/01
on November 23, 2000
Now I would hate to rubbish Tim Wintons latest tome outright because frankly, it was a compelling read. I couldn't put it down till I had turned the last page, this is true. However this urgency was inspired more by my desperation to get the tale of doom and gloom over and done with, then out of a desire to gallop along with the protagonist to an enlightening conclusion.
Wintons novel is no less then a Victorian tale of melodrama and sentimentality. Charlie boy would have been proud! The protagonist -- Scully, is introduced as a pathetic, doting husband, all too earnest and well intentioned. We know from the start that he is a victim having been abandoned by his wife to bring up little daughter Billy (echoes of Oliver, little Dorrit and poor Joe haunt her characterisation) in a ruined Irish cottage. The novel follows his frantic scramble across Europe searching for his illusive spouse with little Billy knocking along behind with resolute maturity. Clearly she is the real victim and one might even be inspired to feel sympathy for her if it weren't for the overwhelming metaphors and allegories and several lashings of pathos.
Everything that can happen to this desperate pair, does happen, till the reader is simply overloaded and exasperated. Scully is quite the anti hero -- with his disfigured face, wounded eye and scarred builders hands. Co incidentally Billies favourite comic is Victor Hugos' 'Hunch Back of Notre Dame'. It is hardly surprising then that on a cold Christmas night in Paris, Scully (drunk and penniless) is persuaded to take refuge in the Cathedral by his pleading daughter? Bells tolling about their heads...
The laboured metaphors plod through the body of the book till at the last moment what better symbol to sum up failure then the proverbial sinking ship.
By this stage I was crying for mercy!
Now to be fair to Charles Dickens who is one of the great classical writers, there is a place for Victorian Melodrama -- even today. What surprises me is that The Riders was short listed for the Booker Prize in 1995. I find it astounding when you see how much intelligent, sensitive, modern literature goes unnoticed in the marketplace today, that The Riders should be singled out for such praise.
My opinion of the Booker Prize has waned somewhat I fear.