A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
“Jerra Nilsam sat with his son at a cafe table and the breeze was in his shirt. The day was all but gone from him now, and there was a party to attend. To host, in fact. It was a friend’s birthday. He was late but he was in no hurry. A party didn’t seem to matter a damn today. He felt a little punch drunk. How could a party count for anything on the anniversary of your father’s death? He wanted to know: how the hell could anything matter?”
In Minimum of Two, his second short story collection, Tim Winton addresses the complexity of human relationships, and in particular men’s relationships with their parents; their wives; their children; the past; themselves. It is a masculine book, muscular. Which is not to say it is brutal (although it can be). There is also a fragility through each of the fourteen stories that highlights that threads together the themes of memory, revenge, redemption, and hope.
The collection’s title story revolves around Neil Madigan as he and his wife Greta try to put their lives back together after Greta is violently raped by her boss. In the two years after the attack, Greta becomes increasingly withdrawn and finds it difficult to function on anything other than automatic pilot. Madigan is struggling with the lack of intimacy between them and the loss of the person his wife once was. The rapist, Blakey, is released after his “minimum of two” year sentence, and Madigan decides that the only way he can get his wife back is to avenge her attack by killing Blakey. It is a desperately sad story of two people who cannot move on, but neither of whom can fathom how to begin any sort of healing process.
Other stories have more hopeful outcomes: in ‘Distant Lands’, a girl known only as Fat Maz is given an escape route out of her dull life behind the counter of her bitter father’s newsagents by a man who comes in every day to read a little more of a novel on the shelf. In ‘Laps’ a family of characters last encountered in Winton’s novel Shallows return to confront their past and find the experience healing (although I should point out that you don’t have to have read the earlier novel to get something from this story as it works perfectly well in its own right).
The real focus point of the collection, though, is Jerra Nilsam, his wife Rachel, and their young son Sam. They appear in seven of the fourteen stories, and together they give snapshots of crucial moments in their lives. In ‘Forest Winter’, collection’s opener, we encounter them just nine weeks after the traumatic birth of Sam as they try to survive with no money. The struggle to survive becomes literal when asthmatic Rachel is gripped by a severe attack without a functioning inhaler and Jerra resorts to physically threatening a pharmacist until they give them a new one. In ‘Nilsam’s Friend’, Jerra catches up with a friend of the same age as him who has taken the opposite route through life. Jerra chose marriage and family; his friend chose to go off alone to see the world and decide what he wants to do with his life. Has Jerra made the right choice himself? ‘The Strong One’ sees a recovered Rachel a year or so later, deciding that she is fed up with hanging around waiting for something to happen. She wants more, and applies to university:
“What’ll I do?’ Jerra asked. ‘If you study.’
‘Look after Sam.’
His eyes narrowed and she saw him let go of Sam. It was only a moment.
‘Me? I can’t.’
‘I mean… I’m not–‘
‘A woman?’ She got his eyes at last. He looked trapped.
‘No, that’s not what I–‘
She saw him look away.
‘Isn’t it good enough for you, looking after a baby? After all that talk!’
He turned back. There was heat in his face. Rachel stood and laughed. And then for a moment she thought he might actually begin to cry.
‘Well, what then?’
‘Can’t you see? I’m scared, that’s all. That I won’t be able to do it properly.'”
This is the fundamental struggle between Jerra and Rachel. Jerra seems to find it difficult to pin down his own identity, whether that be as a father, as a son (his slightly problematic relationship with his parents is touched upon in other stories), but most of all as a man. He is a failed musician whose wife becomes the family’s main breadwinner. His son almost didn’t survive a highly traumatic birth that he was powerless to prevent (also explored elsewhere). His friend is struggling with something and he doesn’t know how to help; indeed when his friend starts to cry, he just sits open-mouthed. Adult life is not necessarily turning out to be what he hoped it might be. But this is, finally, an optimistic book, and at the end, I have hope for Jerra and his family, just as I do for many of the characters in Minimum of Two.
As an exploration of modern masculinity, I find it difficult to imagine a better collection of stories. Yet it is also deeply domestic, making the old criticism of fiction by women as “stuck in the home” even more irrelevant than it already was. Highly recommended.
Tim Winton: Minimum of Two (London: Picador, 2003 edn). ISBN 9780330412629, RRP £7.99