Although his natural humility would make him dislike my saying so, Tim Winton is these days omnipresent in our national culture. Anywhere you look there is bound to be a new book, a television or film adaptation, or a stage adaptation, as with the State Theatre Company’s revival of That Eye, the Sky, adapted by Justin Monjo and Richard Roxburgh from Winton’s 1986 novel and first performed by Burning House Theatre Company, with David Wenham and Hugo Weaving, in Sydney in 1994. It is easy to forget Winton was only twenty-five when he wrote That Eye, the Sky, part of a flurry of short early works that, in hindsight, look like a kind of apprenticeship for Cloudstreet (1991), the ‘slab of a book’ – since adapted for radio, stage, television, and opera – that confirmed Winton as a major Australian author.
That Eye, the Sky, like Cloudstreet, is an ebulliently vernacular story of a working-class family in crisis, grounded in what Tom Burvill has called ‘the myth of the loveable Anglo-Celtic Aussie battler’. Both are poised between the hard-scrabble of life in suburban or semi-rural Western Australia and the metaphysical realm, with its promise of consolatory faith. Characters on the cusp of adulthood are key (as Gail says in one of the short stories in Winton’s The Turning , ‘every vivid experience comes from your adolescence’).
That Eye, the Sky, in the way of formative novels, is the more overtly autobiographical of the two. Its narrator is Morton ‘Ort’ Flack, a curious but obtuse twelve-year-old whose father, Sam, is paralysed by a car accident. A mysterious vagrant, Henry, enters their lives and offers to care for Sam, a saintly intervention that leads to the Flacks’ conversion to Christianity (‘Jesus, fix us up,’ pleads Ort, ‘we’re breakin’ to bits here’), save for Ort’s troubled, sexually precocious sister Tegwyn.