"Fred Scully can't wait to see his wife and daughter. He's got a new life for them all worked out.
"He's sweated on the reunion.
"The doors at the airport hiss open.
"Scully's life falls apart..."
"The Riders is a tremendous read. It is fierce about life. Tim Winton wants to sweep you off your feet; let him." - The Spectator
"...he is not a great Australian novelist; he is a great novelist, full stop." - The Times
"A haunting, sprawling, gut-wrenching tale from a prodigiously talented young novelist." - Esquire
"...a hell of a novel...a hell of an important novel." - Australian Book Review
With the north wind hard at his back, Scully stood in the doorway and sniffed. The cold breeze charged into the house, finding every recess and shadowy hollow. It rattled boards upstairs and lifted scabs of paint from the walls to come back full in his face smelling of mildew, turf, soot, birdshit, Worcestershire sauce and the sealed-up scent of the dead and forgotten. He scraped his muddy boots on the flagstones and closed the door behind him. The sudden noise caused an explosion in the chimney as jackdaws fled their fortress of twigs in the fireplace. His heart racing, he listened to them batter skyward, out into the failing day, and when they were gone he lit a match and set it amongst the debris. In a moment fire roared like a mob in the hearth and gave off a sudden, shifting light. The walls were green-streaked, the beams overhead swathed in webs and the floors swimming with trash, but he was comforted by the new sound and light in the place, something present besides his own breathing.
He simply stood there firestruck like the farmboy of his youth, watching the flames consume half-fossilized leaves and twigs and cones. There in the blaze he saw the huge burns of memory, the windrows of uprooted karris whose sparks went up like flares for days on end over the new cleared land. The walls here were a-dance now, and chunks of burning soot tumbled out onto the hearthstone. Scully jigged about, kicking them back, lightheaded with the stench and the thought of the new life coming to him.
The chimney shuddered, it sucked and heaved and the rubbish in the house began to steam. Scully ran outside and saw his new home spouting flame at the black afternoon sky, its chimney a torch above the sodden valley where his bellow of happiness rang halfway to the mountains. It really was his. Theirs.
From the Pan paperback edition, 1995.
This novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1995.
Personal Review by Perry Middlemiss, 19th October 1995
I have to admit to feeling a great deal of disappointment when I finished this novel. I felt that Winton hadn't delivered, that he'd set up a wonderful ending only to wimp out of it. But it was a feeling that probably lasted all of half an hour as I thought back over the novel and came to the realisation that Winton had done anything but let me down, he just expected me to work a little, to ponder the clues given during the course of the narrative and to come to the same conclusion as him: that the novel couldn't end any other way. And once that realisation had hit I was safely able to contemplate the joys that this book had given me.
Fred Scully is a big shambling unhandsome Australian who is married with a seven-year-old daughter. At the start of the novel he is living somewhere in the backblocks of Ireland renovating an old rundown farmhouse while he waits for his family to join him. The three of them have been on the road travelling for three years or so since leaving their home near Fremantle in Western Australia and have finally decided to settle down. While his wife is back home in WA with their daughter Billie selling their house and finalising business affairs, Scully works all the hours that daylight provides, painting, plumbing, re-wiring, and installing a new outside dunny. In the meantime he receives scant news of what's happening back home and you just know that something bad is brewing.
On the day his wife and child are due to arrive at Shannon airport he barely makes it to the arrival gate on time. But make it he does, only to find that his daughter has made the flight alone - his wife is nowhere to be seen. His daughter appears traumatised and won't talk to him, and the airline company just doesn't want to know. His happy trusting stolid life has come apart at the seams.
There is a subtle change at this point in the novel as Scully contemplates his future and Winton sends him on a flight across Europe in search of his wife - through the Greek Isles, Rome, Paris and Amsterdam. The action takes on all the fast-paced tenor of a thriller as Scully is assailed by mystery on all sides as he searches desperately for some sign of what has happened to his life. Friends he thought he knew when he was in company with his wife have now become almost strangers who give every indication that they know far more than they are letting on, who pity him and just want him gone, or show an anger and contempt for him that he never knew existed.
There is quite a lot to like about this novel - the character of Scully being one of the main items - and a few points which grate - why won't his daughter say anything and why doesn't Scully push the point harder? - but it would be churlish to denigrate the novel's better attributes purely because of the way I feel I would react in a certain situation. The Riders was shortlisted for the 1995 Booker prize; it's hardly surprising.
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Last modified: March 28, 2002.