BOOKS FICTION The boofhead, the bothy and the phantom wife

THE RIDERS by Tim Winton, Picador £14.99
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The Independent Culture
THIS is not a book for the faint-hearted. Nor for those who do not believe that a man whose life is about to shatter sees spectres, like the Celtic riders of the title who appear to Fred Scully. The riders are bloodied and weary from battle, but always ready to set off again; the imperative to ride without knowing why or where paradoxically renders them im-potent. They are an omen that Scully fails to understand.

"A working-class boofhead with a wife who married beneath herself, a hairy bohemian with a beautiful family, the mongrel expat with the homesick twang and ambitious missus, the poor decent-hearted bastard who couldn't see the roof coming down on his head" - Scully is the ugly, "wonk-eyed", big-hearted Australian left behind in Ireland while his wife Jennifer goes to sell up their dream home in Fremantle on the west coast of Australia. Billie, their almost too precocious to be believed six-year-old daughter, accompanies her.

Jennifer, a stifled bureaucrat who dabbles in poetry and painting, has led them on her personal odyssey through London, Paris and Greece. On a last jaunt to Ireland before returning home, Scully follows her whim and buys a derelict bothy, knowing "no explanation could sound reasonable enough for what they had done". His own reason is that he loves her blindly.

The ferocious work of making the bothy habitable keeps at bay the doubts that flutter up from his subconscious. The Irishmen around him see a man "doomed by love, snared by a woman". Their own solution to this problem has been to keep women out of their lives, and to drink. This book is populated by lonely, damaged people, mostly men, who have failed to negotiate the gulf between the sexes.

When Billie steps off the plane at Shannon alone, too shocked to offer any explanation for her mother's absence, the doubts Scully has ignored become a poison of unanswered questions. With the silent Billie he sets off on a journey in search of his phantom wife which revolutionises the plot from fading rural idyll into gripping thriller.

Tim Winton's raw and vibrant language makes the senses jump. Paperbacks are "half-shagged", the pub is a "hot maw" and a couple sleep with "arms cast about like kelp from the stones of their bodies". Every physical sensation contributes to the painful evocation of Scully's emotions as he teeters through numbness, panic, anger, love, hatred, hope. Billie's tenacious love keeps hold of the wayward Scully as he plunges on, and the articulation of their relationship is one of the triumphs of this book.

Cloudstreet, Winton's fourth and best-known novel, tells a mosaic of stories that spans generations in an almost ramshackle style. The Riders is a smaller book; the action covers a matter of weeks, the central character never leaves the stage. It is concentrated, passionate, full of desperation. This focus is part of its strength, though some passages seem to blister up from the plot as if bursting with the effort of containment. Tim Winton's invigorating writing makes a few blisters easy to bear.