The Riders by Tim Winton
I’ve liked what I’ve read of Winton (Cloudstreet and Dirt Music) and this one is no exception. The main character, Scully, is from Freemantle in Western Australia. He’s a big, unattractive guy, a laborer whose skills are currently put to use renovating an old Irish farmhouse which had taken his wife’s fancy on a visit to Ireland. His wife, Jennifer, who’s pregnant with their second child, is in Australia with their 7 year-old daughter, Billie, typing loose ends for their planned move to Ireland.
On the day—shortly before Christmas—when his family is supposed to arrive at Shannon, Billie is alone on the plane, scared enough that she can’t even talk to tell her father what happened to Jennifer. The airline shows Jennifer arrived at Heathrow but didn’t continue on to Shannon. Scully, panicked and not thinking clearly, takes off after her, Billie in tow, and they end up on a frantic trip to London, a Greek island where they’d lived happily before Ireland, Paris, and Amsterdam. The third person narrative shifts occasionally from Scully to Billie’s point of view, particularly as the former gets more and more out of control (he’s accused of murder (wrongly) in Greece but runs anyway and in Amsterdam he’s arrested, drunk and dirty. At one point—after he’s stolen money from Irma, a good-hearted but screwy woman who’s clearly attracted to him and wants to help, Billie practically takes control, appropriating the money. Scully gets more and more desperate, chasing women on the street who look like Jennifer, while Billie, devoted to her father, doesn’t particularly want her mother back.
Gradually, partly through Billie’s point of view, the reader gets a picture of Jennifer, as a woman, more educated than Scully, with a yen to be an artist, but evidently without the talent. Whether she ever loved Scully is unclear, but during what he sees as a romantic period of living in Europe, with Scully working on house renovations with other illegals to get them money, Jennifer’s been seeking out more sophisticated friends, artists and writers and wannabes like herself. The child she carries may not be Scully’s; in fact, there may not even be a child….
Two somewhat blatant associations clarify the meaning of Scully’s desperation. The first is the poem, “On Raglan Road” by Australian Patrick Kavanagh which is quoted in the text. The poem is about a man who “loved too much” and “wooed not as I should a creature made of clay”. An angel who loved like that would lose his wings, concludes the poem. The second reference is to “the riders”, a group of gypsies in Ireland—travelers, that Scully sees and is attracted by early in the novel and then again at the very end when, on New Year’s night he follows Billie out into the snow to the ruined castle near their Irish farmhouse. There some riders have paused, but this time Scully rejects the itinerate life they lead—and presumably the traveling he’s been doing himself.