The Vintage & The Gleaning by Jeremy Chambers
Smithy is a retired shearer turned vineyard worker in his autumn years. It is hard graft, but Smithy has always worked with his hands. Physically all but destroyed after a lifetime of hard liquor, but now sober, he begins to see the world with new eyes, a meditative, singular figure in the town’s bar on rowdy Friday nights.
But clarity can be a curse. Finally confronting his past, overwhelmed by long-buried feelings of regret, nostalgia and loss, Smithy steps in to help a young woman in a desperate situation. A cautious friendship develops, but Charlotte’s husband is widely suspected of murder, and Smithy begins to fear that he will pay a high price for his gallantry.
Written with an authentic music, and infused with beauty, brutality and sadness The Vintage and the Gleaning is a compelling observation of men, women and country. A remarkably accomplished debut novel.
When I received a proof copy of this I kind of rejected it slightly, thinking it wouldn’t be for me. To me, it seemed like it was the kind of story the older generation would enjoy more, and that I wouldn’t be able to relate to any of it. However, having now read it, I am utterly amazed at just how wrong I was! I got so much more out of this novel than I ever thought possible.
Smithy is a vineyard worker in rural Australia and a recovering alcoholic. He is at that stage in life where he is looking back on his life, because really there is nothing much left to look forward to. He lost his wife to cancer and is full of regret over the way he treated her when she was still alive and he didn’t know any better. He has a son who is getting caught up in the wrong crowd, and following in Smithy’s footsteps by treating his own family just as poorly. Smithy’s life now consists of working on a vineyard with a bunch of small town men who work a hard day’s labour and then get profusely drunk after hours. This is his life and it is all he has left. That is until he meets Charlotte.
Charlotteis in her thirties. She fell in love with Brett at sixteen, rebelling against her parents who only wanted the best for her. Years later Brett and Charlotte are married but things haven’t worked out quite the way Charlotte had imagined they would. Smithy finds Charlotte one night bruised and beaten by Brett when she threatens to tell the police that he murdered someone. Now Brett has been released from prison and Charlotte is too afraid to face him, knowing that she will be forced to go back to her miserable life and accept things as they are. Instead, Charlotte stays with Smithy and the two form a rather endearing friendship as they confide in one another.
The thing about Smithy is that he has no hope left for his future, his body is killing him from the inside out because of all the alcohol he has drank, and he has nothing left to live for except perhaps the chance to realise his mistakes and try and make things right within himself. However,Charlotte is young enough to be able to change her life if she truly wants to. She knows the mistake she made in marrying Brett, she knows that she could have had a better life. Brett has beaten her and given her an unhappy marriage, but Charlotte feels that she must blame herself for the way things are. And through this blame, there is a sense here that Charlotte accepts that this is what she got herself into and she must deal with it. She cannot go back to the family who have disowned her, and she has no real friends to speak of. Without Brett, she is alone. She will be alone like Smithy.
I felt like I could really relate to Charlotte. We all think we know what love is when we’re sixteen. We think that our lives are going to be amazing, that we will do great things. But quite often reality just doesn’t match up to these dreams. Charlotte realises she has been living in the past, clinging on to a hope that just isn’t there anymore. This is her life now and she has to make it what she can.
Jeremy Chambers is an extremely gifted writer with his beautiful and descriptive prose that make you feel like you really are in Australia, working on a vineyard.
Walking home along the railway tracks I remember that night. It was a night not unlike this one. The air warm, the breeze in the long grass, its rustling movement regular and all around, swaying to and fro like the ebb and flow of the sea. And I was moving with its tide.
The dialogue of the story certainly takes some getting used to, particularly during conversations with Smithy and his co-workers. I know it won’t be to everyone’s taste, as it is often quite repetitive, but I thought it was brilliant reflection of every day life in a small rural town in Australia, a town where everyone knows each other, and each other’s business. It is a rather bleak town where people have little to do, and little to hope for. The young men grow up fast and their sole ambition is to learn to drink like the older generation, to outdo them as much as possible. They after all, the only people they have to look up to.
I have very few criticisms of this novel. My first one would be the length of some of the passages. Near the end Charlotte talks for a good 50 pages or so, and although some of it is incredibly thought provoking, it does go on just a tad too long to make for comfortable reading. My other criticism is the ending. I have absolutely no idea what the little glimpse into Smithy’s past was all about and I probably will never understand it unless someone explains it. It didn’t really resonate with the rest of the story for me, and I was disappointed that the novel ended with such a scene.
I would recommend this novel to anyone looking for a thought-provoking read. It will appeal to both men and women of all ages and I know that now. I was far too quick to judge this from the cover and I can now see how anyone from teenagers to the elderly will be able to relate to these characters in some shape or form. Jeremy Chambers is certainly one to watch.
The Vintage & The Gleaning is published on 7th July by MacLehose Press, an imprint of Quercus.