Tim Winton’s 1994 novel The Riders is different from most of his Australian-based stories. Starting in Ireland and moving to Greece, Paris, and Holland, Winton’s characteristic descriptions of the Australian landscape and familiar Aussie dialect are absent, replaced with lengthy descriptions of the landscapes the characters find themselves in.
The main protagonist, Fred Scully, begins renovating an old Irish hovel he and his wife, Jennifer, have brought, while Jennifer and their eight-year-old daughter, Billie, sell their Fremantle home. Readers really get to know Scully through his work and his new friendship with Irish postie, Pete-the-Post. When Jennifer doesn’t accompany Billie to Ireland, Scully panics and drags Billie to their previous homes in Europe in search of Jennifer. Scully’s friends exacerbate his anxiety, telling him tales that lead him to believe all sorts of crazy ideas about Jennifer. The more Scully and Billie race across Europe, the more Scully falls apart, turning into a different person from the one established early in the novel.
Winton convincingly portrays Scully’s increasing anxiety and deterioration through Scully’s wild thoughts and speculation. While, as usual, Winton’s writing is wonderful, sometimes the descriptions, which give a good sense of the places, feel laboured, giving the sense of overcompensation. The ending, like many of Winton’s stories, is disappointing and vague.
Halfway through the novel, Winton begins switching between Scully’s and Billie’s point-of-view without warning. While masterfully done in places, and refreshing in others, given Scully’s depressive tirades, it often occurs mid-sentence and leads to much confusion. Still, Scully’s deterioration is confusing from his perspective, so is much more understandable and heartbreaking when viewed through Billie’s eyes, demonstrating Winton’s skill at prompting an emotional response in the reader.
Overall, the story captures a man’s disintegration well, but it’s depressing, and, at times, difficult to read. While I like to encourage artists to tread unfamiliar ground, which is what Winton does in this story, it feels forced in places, is overly long, and ultimately is a depressing read. Winton fans may want to check it out, and if you want to read what it's like to fall apart, then it might be worthwhile. However, other readers should read his other works first.