The great kite of the crucified Christ loomed and caused the crowd to vibrate. Like a pyre before him, the bank of burning candles waited. The hot pure smell of burning. A woman’s fan of blonde hair in front of him scented like roses as he walked, Billy beside him, her face glowing with hurt and understanding. He lit a candle and held it up before him. God, how his head soared and pitched, how rod-like his blood went into his veins. A candle for the birth of Christ, for the squirming of Job in his own shit, for Jonah, running like a mad bastard from the monster he knew he was.
— The Riders, p. 317
This cunningly crafted novel is likely to pose a unique problem for many reviewers. Winston’s complex and vivid narrative, replete with stunning imagery and pulsing color often distracts to the point that the reader is likely to forget what The Riders is about. In effect, almost every sentence in this novel has the cadence and beauty of poetry. Time and time again, I found himself reading paragraphs over and over for the pleasure of gliding through Winton’s complex sentences (which often resemble finely crafted necklaces composed of a network of images.
The paragraph which introduces this review is an example of hundreds of paragraphs that have the same amazing lyricism. Essentially, it is a description of the drunken Scully, the novel’s protagonist entering a Catholic church on Christmas Eve with his 6-year-old daughter, Billy, who has become his caretaker. Even though Billy’s face has been mangled by a crazed dog, she is desperately trying to ignore the pain in order to lead her helpless father through the back streets of Paris. Scully is searching for his wife who has abandoned him and his daughter. As his search becomes increasingly desperate, he begins to identify with Old Testament figures (Job and Jonah) and literary figures like the lurching, one-eyed hunchback, Quasimodo – a figure that his daughter feels her father resembles.
In many ways the plot of The Riders is as complex as the languages that defines it. Scully, a shy and inept Australian laborer, has had the good fortune (or misfortune) to marry the beautiful Jennifer who has “artistic aspirations” and spends much of her time in training to become a painter. Surrounding herself with a cultured (and parasitic) covey of itinerant artists, Jennifer’s obsession drives her through all of the major cities of Europe where studies under other painters. Scully supports his wife and child by earning a living as a carpenter or laborer on fishing boats. Despite the fact that he is treated with contempt by Jennifer and her friends, Scully readily accepts his role, content to be married to Jennifer.
With his wife’s tacit approval, Scully buys an abandoned farm in a remote section of Ireland and renovates it, believing that Jennifer (who is living with her artistic friends) will join him after the work is completed. On the appointed day, Scully arrives at the airport to find Billy, his 6-year-old daughter – but no Jennifer. Billy is strangely mute and refuses to discuss her mother’s absence.
Thus begins a heartbreaking odyssey. Convinced that his wife has been kidnapped or has undergone a traumatic experience that has made it impossible for her to keep the appointed date in Ireland, Scully decides to return all of the places where they have lived during the past six years: a Greek fishing village, an artist’s colony in Paris and a houseboat port in Amsterdam, etc.
It is a bitter and disillusioning journey. When Scully contacts Jennifer’s former friends, he not only discovers that none of them know where his wife is, but that they generally felt that she was both untalented and unfaithful. As Scully exhausts his savings, he reluctantly begins to consider the possibility that Jeniffer has abandoned him and Billy.
One of the most disturbing passages in The Riders deals with Scully’s encounter with Irma, a woman who befriends the father and child. However, after an attempt to seduce Scully fails, Irma becomes a kind of stalker, pursuing Scully from city to city and taunting him with the hint that she knows where Jennifer is. Although she initially appears to be a benevolent fellow traveler, Irma becomes increasingly destructive with each encounter. After she succeeds in stealing Scully’s “identity” and cancels his credit card, the bewildered father has nothing left ... but an ingenious daughter.
The Riders is a love story that records the death of innocence. Scully’s childlike devotion to Jennifer is gradually corrupted, undermined by the painful revelations of his journey. Perhaps, at the end of story when he returns to his renovated farm, he is “sadder but wiser.”
In addition to the story of Scully’s painful journey, The Riders contains a kind of fable which appears to have no relevance to the novel’s action – yet it may be a metaphor for Scully’s dilemma. Near the abandoned farm in Ireland, Scully finds the ruins of an ancient castle and witnesses a strange nocturnal ceremony. Hundreds of riders appear below the castle and wait, mutely staring up at the castle. There is no revelation. No one appears on the ancient parapets and so the mute riders vanish. They will return as they have done for countless nights. Although Scully witnesses the riders’ ceremony twice (once before his vain search for Jeniffer and once after he abandons the search), he decides not to participate in the future. Perhaps he has learned a painful lesson about the futility of waiting for a return that will never occur.
What does it mean? Why is the fable of the riders a part of Scully’s story? Possibly, the connection is that both Scully’s story and the ceremony before the ancient castle have to do with “unquestioning devotion.” Both the riders and Scully have wasted their lives waiting for something that will never come.
Certainly, The Riders is a unique novel. Winton blends poetic description, Irish ballads, an odyssey through the back streets of Europe and a mysterious fable that reads like a variation of “Waiting for Godot.” Filled with dazzling passages of lyric narrative, The Riders easily demonstrates why Tim Winton is considered one of Australia’s greatest novelists.
The Riders, by Tim Winton. Scribner, 1996. 374 pages