Sink, seemingly an unusual name for a habitat, is where Maurice and Ida Stubbs reside. Then there is Murray Jaccob, an eccentric neighbour, and the very young Ronnie Melwater – these are basically the people we come across in Tim Winton’s brilliant novel In the Winter Dark. They do venture beyond the limits of Sink, but such movements are sporadic, and hardly to be counted for, except for the contrast they offer and their place in all its starkness. Although the primary speaking voice is Maurice’s, we get to see and hear the perspectives of all of these people, their inner workings registered in an enthralling surreal mechanism that is seamlessly integrated into the flowing narrative. There is dream, and then the scope of memory is marked out to take the reader on tours into pasts which are remote and hazy.
Maurice explains how he comes to serve as the repository and the vehicle of thought-transmission for the people who surround him: “It’s strange how other people’s memories become your own. You recall things they’ve told you. You go over things until you think you can see the joins, the cell of it all. It’s as though the things which need telling seep across to you in your sleep. Suddenly you have dreams about things that happened to them, not to you, as if it isn’t rough enough holding down your own secrets.” More than the pasts, however, it is the persistent anxieties that beset them which keep each other on tenterhooks. The place doesn’t quite have the definitive stamp of the Australian outback, and in its placement and materiality, there is a suffusion of the insuperable unknown, making it both a mystery and a source of inquisitive enquiry. Each one of them is solitary in the way they look at things, distinctively different, and whatever meeting-points there are, they are foisted upon the fabric of fragility, so tense that eruption seems imminent.
Things appear to impose upon this miniscule group when Ida’s dog is brutally decapacitated, and the remains reminding them of something sinister hovering in their vicinity. Soon enough Ronnie and Jaccob too encounter similar situations where poultry and livestock are seen to be selectively torn apart, but crucially enough it doesn’t point towards any human intervention. Completely clueless, the four of them try out a variety of modes to come to the reality of the situation but the dark and sinister hovering continues. It considerably affects them, each forced to go back to their mental cocoons, hoping to recover something that would enable the sustenance of what they see as ‘existence’.
For Maurice, the confluence of the various threads of the mind-stream operates to overwhelm him: “When a man dreams things from the past, you’d think he’d be able to rearrange them in new sequences to please himself. You’d think your unconscious mind would want to do it for you, to spare you the grief and shame. But no. In my dreams, it all happens as it happened, and I see it and be it again and the confusion never wears off.” It is evident that dreams aren’t simply those which occupy their mental planes, dreams are also aspirations gone astray, fantasies which lingered on to become pains that reminded them of what they could never become – such tortuous underpinnings cannot be wished away by either will or imagination, the reality of having to endure when no recompense is forthcoming is what keeps them on the edge. Such a precipitous life is not brought about by the sense of the unknown alone that they are forced to face, it is the interweaving of the world’s unrelenting demand and the persistent pressure of self-knowledge which drives them to the extreme. In the Winter Dark is a remarkable study of the human mindscape, the demons that inhabit and coexist with the dreams that journey together as the body wears on, existence becoming an engagement that is not merely an act of orchestration but a structure one is compelled to bear.