“The Riders” by Tim Winton

“The Riders” by Tim Winton (1994) – 377 pages

 To say I was disappointed with “The Riders” would be an understatement. Only a month ago, I finished reading “cloudstreet”, the Australian story of the Pickle and Lamb families, which I consider one of the finest novels I’ve read in recent years. I was expecting much more from “The Riders” than it delivered. Let me itemize the reasons for my disappointment.

1. Tim Winton as a writer can do charm and / or cuteness 25 hours a day. In “cloudstreet” the charm is somewhat evenly spread out around the dozen or so main characters of the novel. In “The Riders” all the charm is mostly centered on the one character Scully. Scully suffers from a severe charm overload. I would have preferred a real human being, obnoxious and annoying but with depth.

2. “cloudstreet” takes place in Australia, a country Winton clearly loves, faults and all. “The Riders” takes place in Ireland, Greece, Rome, Paris, and Amsterdam. Scully in “The Riders” has a nostalgia for Ireland, considers himself ‘desert Irish’ being from Australia, but the Ireland here is too cute for its own good. As for the other places, Scully feels only contempt for these European spots, and his contempt shows in how shabby his description of these places is. This is definitely not a travelogue. Since he finds these places unattractive, they are not described in a compelling way.

3. As mentioned before, “cloudstreet” has about a dozen main characters whose stories are interleaved. “The Rider” has only Scully and his almost speechless daughter, Billie, who did not sustain my interest.

4. All of the characters Scully and Billie meet on their European trip are unlikeable. Their European trip is about two-thirds of the novel. So with unlikeable characters and mostly shabby scenery, this trip is a long slog. I guess we’re supposed to like Scully enough to make up for the lack of other likeable characters, but I didn’t by a long shot.

5. One of the main characters in the “The Riders” is the missing wife and mother Jennifer whom husband and daughter are searching for, but we never get any details about what she really is like until nearly the last scene. About all we get from Scully up until then is how good looking she is. Scully has no insight into her whatsoever even though they have been married at least seven years.

6. Can someone explain the metaphor or imagery of the riders on white horses?

Maybe I read these two Tim Winton novels too close together. It’s time for me to take a vacation from Tim Winton novels.

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11 responses to this post.

  1. Nope … and I should have warned you off. I remember enjoying reading it (as in an enjoyable story) but absolutely nothing else, ie not memorable. At least for me. I think he wrote it on a writer’s grant during which he travelled but I might be wrong about that. I don’t think you read them too closely together. Few people see it high in his oeuvre. Try The turning, or Breath, or Dirt music – or even some of his earlier novellas. I think you’ll be back on the Winton track.

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    • Hi WhisperingGums,
      Yes, you should have warned me off. I suppose it was one of those cases where the Booker gave it a nomination because they had missed giving it to “cloudstreet” before, sort of like Elizabeth Taylor getting the Oscar for ‘Butterfield 8″ when they were really honoring her performances in her previous movies “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “A Place in the Sun”. You have got to see “A Place in the Sun”. It actually is the screen version of Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy”, a great novel and movie.

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  2. LOL Great minds think alike, Sue and Tony! I read this after my father, passed it on to me. I was as mystified by the horses as he was…

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  3. For me, this is a very useful discussion. I do intend to read more Winton — and it won’t be this one. Thanks for saving me the time. Unanimous opinion from three whose views I respect is plenty enough for me. I’m intrigued at the idea that he wrote it simply to fulfill the conditions of a travel grant — I’ve certainly known young authors who would be up to that.

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    • Oh no, I was clearly ambiguous. Winton had an Australia Council grant and used it to travel, broaden his experience. I don’t believe he had to write a book specifically based on his travels. (At least that’s as I understand it – it’s so long ago searches don’t bring up the details.)

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      • wg: I didn’t mean to suggest that you made the implication — I did. In Canada at least, back then, travel grants did include a commitment to write something about the experience. Which, of course, produced grumpy assessments from travellers who resented being forced to write about the experience.

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        • Thanks kfc. just wanted to make sure. Funnily I am just reading Lloyd Jones’ Hand me down world, much of which is set in Berlin. And guess what, he wrote it while living in Berlin on a Creative New Zealand Writers Residency.

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  4. Hi Kevin,
    Most travellers to Greece, Paris, and Amsterdam have a more positive opinion of these places than Winton has. I’d love to see Greece, home of all those ancient cultures that I admire. For me, as far as ancient cultures go, the Greeks beat the Romans by miles.

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  5. I’ve recently read this. My review is going up in the next couple of days — it’s been sitting there on my hardrive waiting until I get all my Dublin posts out of the way. But I *LOVED* the book!

    I think you don’t get much info on Scully’s wife because, well, Scully’s not a deep thinker (he describes himself as a “boofhead” which is Australian for idiot) and he’s more in love with the idea of her rather than who she really is. In fact, as the story progresses it becomes more and more clear that he doesn’t know who she is.

    As to the riders, they are actually Irish gypsies or travellers, and given that the book is about being constantly on the move, not having a home, I found they were symbolic of Scully’s journey.

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  6. Hi Kimbofo,
    Thank you for explaining about the Irish gypsies or travellers. I will be very interested in your review. We do agree on one point – Scully is a “boofhead”.

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