Books: The ancient groper's tale

James Urquhart dives with pleasure into a gentle fishy parable

by Tim Winton

Picador, pounds 7.99, 160pp

THERE IS something relentless about the flux of tide and the magnitude of the ocean that inspires awe and lends itself to didactic, or even philosophical writing. If Jonah and the whale is the Biblical mother of all yarns, then Melville, Conrad and - into our decade - David Guterson or James Hamilton-Paterson - have managed to add moral dimensions to the exhilarating spirit of maritime adventure. The oceans are stark environments, unlike any other, at once boundlessly, dizzyingly empty and teeming with the diversity of God's bounty. It is perhaps the very unknowable depths covered by water that remain enchanting to the imagination.

Tim Winton has avoided many of the easy literary uses of the sea - as pathetic fallacy, water as sacrament, or else the adversarial fishing contest as a vehicle for rites-of-passage. Yet I admit that when I picked up his new novella, I anticipated something in the region of The Old Man and the Sea salted with traces of Winton's own theology. I was wrong.

is a large and ancient blue groper that skulks beneath the abalone reefs in Longboat Bay - an Edenic marine park inhabited only by Abel Jackson and his bereaved mother, Dora. Abel grows up, goes to college, learns that "there was nothing in nature as cruel and savage as a greedy human being", and witnesses his stubborn, independent mother grow older.

It is difficult to unfold more of the yarn without unbalancing the delicate skiff of Winton's creation. The author lives with his family in a remote fishing village on the coast of Western Australia and has inflected his simple account with the essential flavours of the seafaring tradition: careful knowledge, self- reliance, judicious conviction. Abel's growth to manhood and the record of elemental decisions that he makes are not sentimental, nor are they allegorical; they are somehow ideal, as though perhaps Winton were writing a parable rather than a fable.

is in many ways an answer to the nagging, almost paranoid rootlessness of his previous novel, The Riders, which richly deserved its Booker Prize shortlisting in 1995. Fred Scully's helpless chaotic skimming across Europe encompassed not only a painful searching for the right place or person but, inevitably, just the right question. does not seek to do this but offers a type of wisdom - not cloying, but in a form that might be admired, if not accepted.

While its subtitle is "a fable for all ages", is not a fabular tale in the mould of, say, Haruki Murakami's The Seventh Man. "Fable" suggests more weight to an adult eye than is just - but is a good, gentle read. Gentle is generally a word deployed damningly by critics, but I use it here as a benchmark of Winton's versatility and success.