Riders

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About The Book

An exploration of marriage and the rich relationship that can exist between father and daughter, The Riders is a gorgeously wrought novel from the award-winning author Tim Winton.

After traveling through Europe for two years, Scully and his wife Jennifer wind up in Ireland, and on a mystical whim of Jennifer's, buy an old farmhouse which stands in the shadow of a castle. While Scully spends weeks alone renovating the old house, Jennifer returns to Australia to liquidate their assets. When Scully arrives at Shannon Airport to pick up Jennifer and their seven-year-old daughter, Billie, it is Billie who emerges—alone. There is no note, no explanation, not so much as a word from Jennifer, and the shock has left Billie speechless. In that instant, Scully's life falls to pieces.

The Riders is a superbly written and a darkly haunting story of a lovesick man in a vain search for a vanished woman. It is a powerfully accurate account of marriage today, of the demons that trouble relationships, of resurrection found in the will to keep going, in the refusal to hold on, to stand still. The Riders is also a moving story about the relationship between a loving man and his tough, bright daughter.

Excerpt

Chapter One

With the north wind hard at his back, Scully stood in the doorway and sniffed. The cold breeze charged into the house, finding every recess and shadowy hollow. It rattled boards upstairs and lifted scabs of paint from the walls to come back full in his face smelling of mildew, turf, soot, birdshit, Worcestershire sauce and the sealed-up scent of the dead and forgotten. He scraped his muddy boots on the flagstones and closed the door behind him. The sudden noise caused an explosion in the chimney as jackdaws fled their fortress of twigs in the fireplace. His heart racing, he listened to them batter skyward, out into the failing day, and when they were gone he lit a match and set it amongst the debris. In a moment fire roared like a mob in tile hearth and gave off a sudden, shifting light. The walls were green-streaked, the beams overhead swathed in webs and the floor swimming with trash, but he was comforted by the new sound and light in the place, something present besides his own breathing.

He simply stood there firestruck like the farmboy of his youth, watching the flames consume half-fossilized leaves and twigs and cones. There in the blaze he saw the huge burns of memory, the windrows of uprooted karris whose sparks went up like flares for days on end over the new cleared land. The walls here were a-dance now, and chunks of burning soot tumbled out onto the hearthstone. Scully jigged about, kicking them back, lightheaded with the stench and the thought of the new life coming to him.

The chimney shuddered, it sucked and heaved and the rubbish in the house began to steam. Scully ran outside and saw his new home spouting flame at the black afternoon sky, its chimney a torch above the sodden valley where his bellow of happiness rang halfway to the mountains. It really was his. Theirs.

It was a small house, simple as a child's drawing and older than his own nation. Two rooms upstairs, two down. Classic vernacular, like a model from the old textbooks. It stood alone on the bare scalp of a hill called the Leap. Two hundred yards below it, separated by a stand of ash trees and a hedged lane was the remains of a gothic castle, a tower house and fallen wings that stood monolithic above the valley with its farms and soaklands. From where Scully stood, beneath his crackling chimney, he could see the whole way across to the Slieve Bloom Mountains at whose feet the valley and its patchwork of farms lay like a twisted shawl. Wherever you looked in that direction you saw mountains beyond and castle in the corner of your eye. The valley squeezed between them; things, colours, creatures slipped by in their shadow, and behind, behind the Leap there was only the lowest of skies.

He wasted no time. In what remained of the brief northern day he must seal the place against the weather, so he began by puttying up loose windowpanes and cutting a few jerry-built replacements out of ply. He dragged his tools and supplies in from the old Transit van and set a fallen door on two crates to serve as a workbench. He brought in a steel bucket and a bag of cement, some rough timber, a few cans of nails and screws and boxes of jumbled crap he'd dragged halfway round Europe. By the fire he stood a skillet and an iron pot, and on the bench beside some half-shagged paperbacks he dropped his cardboard box of groceries. All the luggage he left in the van. It was a leaky old banger but it was drier and cleaner than the house.

He lined up his battered power tools along the seeping wall nearest the fire and shrugged. Even the damp had damp. The cottage had not so much as a power point or light socket. He resigned himself to it and found a trowel, mixed up a slurry of cement in his steel bucket, stood his aluminium ladder against the front wall and climbed up onto the roof to caulk cracked slates while the rain held off and the light lasted. From up there he saw the whole valley again: the falling castle, the soaks and bogs, the pastures and barley fields in the grid of hawthorn hedges and drystone walls all the way up to the mountains. His hands had softened these past weeks. He felt the lime biting into the cracks in his fingers and he couldn't help but sing, his excitement was so full, so he launched rather badly into the only Irish song he knew.

There was a wild Colonial boy,

Jack Dougan was his name...


He bawled it out across the muddy field, improvising shamelessly through verses he didn't know, and the tension of the long drive slowly left him and he had the automatic work of his hands to soothe him until the only light was from the distant farmhouses and the only sound the carping of dogs.

By torchlight he washed himself at the small well beside the barn and went inside to boil some potatoes. He heaped the fire with pulpy timber and the few bits of dry turf he found, and hung his pot from the crane above it. Then he lit three cheap candles and stood them on a sill. He straightened a moment before the fire, feeling the day come down hard on him. It was sealed now. It was a start.

He put one boot up on a swampy pile of the Irish Times and saw beside his instep:

BOG MAN IN CHESHIRE

Peat cutters in Cheshire yesterday unearthed the body of a man believed to have been preserved in a bog for centuries...

Scully shifted his foot and the paper came apart like compost.

It was warm inside now, but it would take days of fires to dry the place out, and even then the creeping damp would return. Strange to own a house older than your own nation. Strange to even bother, really, he thought. Nothing so weird as a man in love.

Now the piles of refuse were really steaming and the stink was terrible, so with the shovel and rake, and with his bare hands, he dragged rotten coats and serge trousers, felt hats, boots, flannel shirts, squelching blankets, bottles, bicycle wheels, dead rats and curling mass cards outside to the back of the barn. He swept and scraped and humped fresh loads out to the pile behind the knobbly wall. The norther was up again and it swirled about in the dark, calling in the nooks of the barn. Stumbling in the gloom he went to the van for some turps, doused the whole reeking pile and took out his matches. But the wind blew and no match would light, and the longer he took the more he thought about it and the less he liked the idea of torching the belongings of a dead man right off the mark like this. He had it all outside now. The rest could wait till morning.

Somewhere down in the valley, cattle moaned in their sheds. He smelled the smoke of his homefire and the earthy steam of boiling spuds. He saw the outline of his place beneath the low sky. At the well he washed his numb hands a second time and went indoors.

When the spuds were done he pulled a ruined cane chair up to the hearth and ate them chopped with butter and slabs of soda bread. He opened a bottle of Guinness and kicked off his boots. Five-thirty and it was black out there and had been the better part of an hour. What a hemisphere. What a day. In twenty-eight hours he'd seen his wife and daughter off at Heathrow, bought the old banger from two Euro-hippies at Waterloo Station, retrieved his tools and all their stored luggage from a mate's place in North London and hit the road for the West Coast feeling like a stunned mullet. England was still choked with debris and torn trees from the storms and the place seemed mad with cops and soldiers. He had no radio and hadn't seen a paper. Enniskillen, people said, eleven dead and sixty injured in an IRA cock-up. Every transfer was choked, every copper wanted to see your stuff. The ferry across the Irish Sea, the roads out of Rosslare, the drive across Ireland. The world was reeling, or perhaps it was just him, surprised and tired at the lawyer's place in Roscrea, in his first Irish supermarket and off-licence. People talked of Enniskillen, of Wall Street, of weather sent from hell, and he plunged on drunk with fatigue and information. There had to be a limit to what you could absorb, he thought. And now he was still at last, inside, with his life back to lock-up stage.

The wind ploughed about outside as he drank off his Guinness. The yeasty, warm porter expanded in his gut and he moaned with pleasure. Geez, Scully, he thought, you're not hard to please. Just look at you!

And then quite suddenly, with the empty bottle in his lap, sprawled before the lowing fire in a country he knew nothing about, he was asleep and dreaming like a dog.

Copyright © 1994 by Tim Winton

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Discussion Points
  1. Winton has been acclaimed for his evocation of place. What details in The Riders evokes its settings, and what is the relation between Winton's settings and his themes?
  2. At various times, Winton deviates from his third person narration by changing the point of view, giving voice to other characters, such as Arthur Lipp, Jimmy Brereton, Billie, Irma, and perhaps even Jennifer. Why does he do this? What effect does it have on you? Do these passages enhance the story?
  3. Scully thinks of himself as the primary parent -- the true caregiver of Billie. Yet under his care, Billie is dragged all over Europe. She is rarely fed, is up at all hours, accompanies her father into bars, and is mauled by a vicious dog. Is Scully simply unaware of what he is doing to Billie? Is keeping Billie with him and never abandoning her enough to make him the parent he sees himself as? Is Scully a good parent?
  4. Billie gets off the airplane traumatized. Why doesn't Scully try to get more information from her, especially once Billie resumes talking? At one point Winton writes, "God, how he wished he could ask her again, know what had happened at Heathrow. But he couldn't push her now." By not forcing Billie to open up and tell him what happened, is Scully just avoiding the truth? Were you disappointed that Scully didn't push her further? If he'd pushed her to tell him more, would it have been harmful for them both, or beneficial? Why might Winton have made this choice?
  5. Why do you think Scully didn't contact the police? Why might Scully have chosen to search for her himself, in effect running himself? Do you think he was surprised Jennifer had it in her to take off like that? What is the dark side of this love?
  6. As Scully becomes more and more unhinged, Billie finds it necessary to take care of him. She takes the money from his pocket and holds onto it herself. She cleans him while he sleeps, and when they are on the boat, she watches over him. Why did Winton reverse their roles? What significance does this have for Scully and for Billie, for their family? Later, on the boat when Scully opens his eyes and comes out of his stuporous sleep, Billie looks him in the eye and simply says, "Me." What did she mean by this?
  7. A picture of Jennifer emerges in the course of the novel. Describe who you think Jennifer really is. Does Scully truly know her? What does she want? What was Jennifer looking for that Scully couldn't provide? How do you feel about Jennifer at the beginning of the book? How do you feel about her when it becomes obvious that she's purposefully left her husband and child?
  8. Scully gets an unexpected view of Jennifer from her painting teacher. The teacher confides, "No artistic instincts whatsoever....She's something of a snob, a dilettante. She wants recognition. She wants to be more interesting." Are these acceptable reasons for a woman to run away and desert her husband and child? What do you think of such reasons, such needs? Are they ever acceptable?
  9. What really happened to Jennifer? What clues does Winton provide us with? Did it bother you that Winton never really let us know exactly what happened?
  10. "People like you," Jennifer used to say to Scully. "You don't get it, do you? You like your life just fine, you take whatever comes with a sick kind of gratitude. That's where we're different." He had to agree. He just didn't get it. What is it that Scully doesn't get? What might be Scully's view of life? Does Scully pay in the end for his vision of life? Where does it lead him? What do you think of Winton's vision of contemporary marriage? Of life?
  11. Throughout the story there are many references to Scully's unaffractive physical looks -- his rugged face, his unruly hair -- and to the fear he could sometimes inspire from his looks alone. Yet there was also much mention of his kindness, of his gentle nature. What might have been the point of this? What might Winton be trying to say about appearance and truth? Winton also makes some parallels between Scully and the comic book character, Quasimodo, with whom Billie is so captivated. What is the significance of this?
  12. Irma tells Scully that she thinks they are alike. Do you agree with her? In what ways might this be so? What do you think Irma wants from Scully? What does it mean for Scully when he finally steals her money? What kind of passage is this for him? What would you have done in a similar situation? After Scully betrays Irma, he stumbles his way into Notre Dame, "and is confronted by the bigness he has always suspected arches over him. He has grown up with some apprehension of the divine. Now he has an almost physical confrontation with it -- both with his own mortality and with the probability that he's being observed by more than the two people who took part in his fall. What does this scene mean to you?
  13. Why might Winton have chosen an Amsterdam sex shop, specifically among the dildos, as the denouement of his novel? Is this effective and/or fitting? Discuss why or why not?
  14. Would the story have been substantially different had a woman and a child been deserted by a man? if so, in what ways? Are we more conditioned as a society to a story of a man leaving his wife and child, rather than the other way around? If so, why might this be?
  15. Who are the riders? What are they doing and why? Where else do they appear in the novel, besides outside the castle? What is their significance? Why did Winton title the book after them? Are they real or a figment of Scully's imagination? What do they mean to Scully? In effect, what is Scully choosing when he chooses to abandon the riders? What can we learn from Scully's choice?
Recommended Readings
The Aunt's Story, Patrick White
Penguin, 1993
An Autobiography: To the Island; An Angel at My Table; Envoy from Mirror City, Janet Frame
Braziller, 1991
The End of the Affair, Graham Greene
Penguin, 1971
Mother of Pearl, Mary Morrisey
Scribner, 1994
A Family Madness, Thomas Keneally
Touchstone, 1993
The Road from Coorain, Jill Ker Conway
Vintage Books, 1981
The Fat Man in History, Peter Carey
Vintage Books, 1993
The Heather Blazing, Colm Toibin
Penguin, 1993
Moses Supposes Stories, Ellen Currie
Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1995
Paddy Clark, Ha Ha Ha, Roddy Doyle
Penguin, 1995
Voss, Patrick White
Penguin, 1984

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Tim Winton grew up on the coast of Western Australia, where he continues to live. He is the author of eighteen books. His epic novel Cloudstreet was adapted for the theater and has been performed around the world. His two most recent novels, Dirt Music and The Riders, were both shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He has won the prestigious Miles Franklin Award three times, and in 1998 the Australian National Trust declared Winton a national living treasure. The Turning has already won the 2005 Christina Stead Prize for Fiction.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (June 23, 1996)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780684822778

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