The fishermen of White Point, on Australia's wild western seaboard, do not take kindly to poachers - especially those who steal their women as well as their lobster quota. Luther Fox learns this to his cost when he finds his truck and boat-trailer trashed and his dog shot dead. Lu clears off pretty sharpish, packing his swag and hitch-hiking upstate to hide away in the wilderness. This is familiar Tim Winton territory: the tensions between the individual and the community, solitude and gregariousness, man and the elements. But Dirt Music is also a love story. At least, it is a story of lovers forced apart before they can discover if love is possible - because, in fleeing, Lu leaves behind Georgie Jutland, a woman trapped in a loveless relationship with Jim Buckridge, the "big brother" of the vengeful fishing fraternity. For different reasons, Georgie and Jim have no intention of letting Lu vanish without trace.
It is seven years since Winton was shortlisted for the Booker Prize with The Riders, his last, impressive novel. That, too, centred on the search for a disappeared lover, and the journeys - geographical and psychological - that can result from abandonment. There, it was a woman who went AWOL and a man who, in trying to find her, found out plenty about himself; here, the gender roles are reversed. There, the settings were Ireland and Greece; here, it is Western Australia. But you can't help wondering if Winton is reheating the leftovers, creatively speaking. It's not unusual for a writer to complete a novel with a sense that there is unfinished business - themes or issues not fully explored, or which suggest other fictional uses. And the similarities and symmetries between The Riders and Dirt Music are such that you could regard them as companion volumes.
One chief difference is that his new heroine, instead of being a character in absentia, shares equal billing with the hero. This is as much Georgie's tale as it is Lu's. A former nurse, reduced to the role of lobster widow and wicked stepmother, she consoles herself with vodka and the internet. Then a chance encounter with the local poacher offers an outlet. But they barely warm the sheets of their affair before Lu - damaged once before by tragedy, and in fear for Georgie's safety as well as his own - does a runner. While he endures a Robinson Crusoe existence among the crocs and sharks of an uninhabited island, her ordeal is to be stuck with Jim and the boys at White Point, shamed by her infidelity. Separated, Lu and Georgie begin to realise what they have lost.
All of which should make for a moving drama. And Winton, with his muscular yet lyrical prose and probing eye for human motivation, almost achieves this. In portraying Lu and Georgie's relationship, and Lu's wilderness walkabout, Winton is at his best. But both stories, heroine's and hero's, need to pull their weight, and Georgie's is just not as consistently engrossing as Lu's. It may be a male author/female character thing, but she seems less "felt", more manufactured - as if Winton had to work harder to get inside her head. It does not help that much of her narrative is taken up with Jim - a man, and relationship, that fail to convince. Besides, without giving away the ending, Jim's reason for pursuing Lu (some guff about proving to himself that he won't resort to violence), and Georgie's agreement to go with him, are not only flimsily explained, but culminate in a piece of contrived melodrama that beggars belief.
And yet, with a writer as good as Winton, even this near miss of a novel leaves echoes in your mind long after you have shut the book.