Every once in a while, I come across a book I find interesting enough to read even though it’s not on my general “to read” pile/list. This is true about my recent read, Tim Winton‘s The Riders. I’ve never heard of this book before – it’s not even mine. I discovered it on a bookshelf of an office I’m temporarily working from. The two main reasons I picked it up: 1. it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize back in 1995, which is the year that Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road won, and 2. I was bored and didn’t have anything interesting to read.
Not knowing anything about a book before reading it has its advantages. Mainly, it kept me reading until I finally figured out what “genre” it belonged to or what exactly it was about. For about a quarter of the book, it was hard to say exactly what the story was going to be about. It opens with an Australian man, Fred Scully, fixing up a dilapidated cottage he bought on a whim, or on his wife’s whim, in a small wooded village in Ireland. While on a short trip to Ireland with his family, Scully’s wife saw the cottage near a ruined medieval castle and had a “feeling” about it. Scully, being a devoted husband, bought the house with the plan of relocating his family and living there permanently. Scully sent his wife Jennifer and 7-year-old daughter, Billie, back to Australia to sell their old house and to facilitate the move, while he stayed in the cottage in Ireland to fix it up.
While fixing up the house, Scully thinks back on his life to drive the loneliness away – how he met his beautiful, intelligent wife, who was quite out of his league; about his unique, outspoken daughter and their special bond; and their gypsy life, traveling from Australia to Greece and then to France and London. During their travels, Scully, who is a big, burly, ugly, hairy, neanderthalesque type of man, finds odd jobs in construction and manual labor, while Jennifer engages in different artistic pursuits, writing poetry, painting, and trying to find herself. Their family is unconventional, but Scully is in love with Jennifer and loves his life.
For three months, Scully labors on their little house, while Jennifer and Billie wait for the sale of their house in Fremantle, Australia. Scully befriends the local postman, Pete-the-Post, and with his help was able to make vast improvements on the old cottage. In addition to helping with repairs around the house, Pete proves to be a good friend who helps Scully through his isolation and loneliness. Jennifer sends occasional telegrams regarding the sale of their house and arrival to Ireland. However, when Scully goes to the airport to pick them up, only Billie emerges from the arrivals gate. Tired and scared, Billie is accompanied by a flight attendant who informs the confused Scully that Billie had boarded the plane from Heathrow Airport alone. Billie, who is usually talkative, not only refuses to answer Scully’s questions about what happened and where Jennifer was but refuses to talk altogether. Scully’s mind is filled with questions and possibilities but mostly of concern; was Jennifer hurt? was she lying in a hospital somewhere, bleeding to death? However, try as he might, he couldn’t help the slivers of doubt that escaped his mind – did she run away with another man? Did she plan the whole thing from the beginning – selling their house in Australia and forcing him to buy a cottage in remote Ireland to get him and Billie out of her life? Distraught, confused, and disoriented, Scully takes Billie and decides to revisit some of the places they’ve lived before Ireland in hopes of finding answers to Jennifer’s disappearance.
Scully and Billie first return to Greece, where, according to Scully’s assessment, they lived a happy, fulfilled life among European and American expats. Scully is convinced that of all the places they’ve lived, Greece would be the place Jennifer would return to if she was going through something difficult. However, upon his return, Scully and Billie are met with suspicion, even hostility. Dazed and lost, Scully moves among the community in Greece in a perpetual state of confusion to the growing concern and disappointment of young Billie. In his desperation to find answers and to find Jennifer, Scully all but neglects Billie, who gets into a terrible, unavoidable accident. Terrified of what was happening around him, Scully, with Billie in tow, leaves Greece and travels toward Italy, with no plan in mind. His continued search for Jennifer brings him next to Paris and then to Amsterdam, all the time chasing leads and hunches.
The Riders is a sad, haunting tale of love; the extent to which one is willing to go to find it; and whether it’s possible to love someone too much. During his search for Jennifer, Scully looks back on their life together and the people they’ve met and the friends they have made and questions whether he really truly knew any of them, including Jennifer and himself. The novel is seeped in sadness and melancholy, which can be felt through the narrative and set the mood of the novel, along with beautiful descriptions of scenery, trying to capture Billie’s and Scully’s fleeting thoughts, memories, and emotions.
If I had to classify it, I would go with mystery/drama, with a bit of a supernatural feel to it, which may or may not be metaphorical. It’s a very intriguing and captivating novel, though toward the end, I felt a bit impatient with the narrative, wanting only to solve the the mystery and to get answers. Overall, I think I enjoyed the book – it kept me up till the wee hours of the morning – but I don’t know whether it was really the book itself or the current situation I’m in and the circumstances which “forced” me to read this particular book. I think my work-related isolation in a cold (colder than what I’m used to in the city), wooded, quiet region reinforced the novel’s moody ambiance. Sometimes I think, had I seen this book in the city, with so many other books to choose from, I might not have been so compelled to read it or to stick with it to the end.
The Riders (1995) – Tim Winton
Pan MacMillan; 366 pages (tpb)
Personal rating: 2.5/5