Tim Winton's vivid new collection of linked stories, "The Turning," is set in Western Australia — but it hardly presents a picturesque, genteel...

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“The Turning: New Stories”
by Tim Winton
Scribner, 317 pp., $25

Tim Winton’s vivid new collection of linked stories, “The Turning,” is set in Western Australia — but it hardly presents a picturesque, genteel travelogue of the place. Most of the tales center around a dismal, blue-collar (and fictional) town called Angelus, where “week after week an endless misting drizzle wafts in from the sea,” where “the southern sky presses down and the beaches and bays turn the colour of dirty tin.”

Born in Perth in 1960, Winton still lives in Western Australia, and his fiction is almost always steeped in its harsh but compelling landscape. In Winton’s spare and always surprising prose, Western Australia is a place of severe, spiky contrasts: baked land and blue ocean, stifling small towns and endless deserts, nowhere jobs and infinite possibilities. There’s great beauty, but there’s also an underlying, constant threat of chaos and violence; flora, fauna and weather alike seem always on the brink of disorder or chaos. Winton’s best-known novel is probably “Dirt Music,” short-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2002. Its story — of the tough lives of fishermen and their families — was a heady blend of love, grief, desire and fulfillment.

Winton’s characters tend be ramshackle, hardscrabble and somewhat grubby — but likable nonetheless. His people can be impulsive, unreasoning or cruel, but they can also be loving and wistful. Winton’s eye for his characters is generous but unsentimental, and he forges an intimate link between them and the landscape they inhabit; even the smallest child knows the names of fish and animals, plants and trees — and knows how to gather and eat them, too.

Winton has said in interviews that he never set out to create linked stories for “The Turning,” but he realized as he got into it that the same characters were cropping up over and over. He wisely decided to let them, and the book’s characters thus float from one story to another, appearing as shadowy background figures in one tale and coming into sharp focus elsewhere.

Many of the pieces zero in on the psychodynamics of family life, and Winton writes especially poignantly about abandonment and disappointment. Many also deal with the heightened emotions and attenuated senses of the teenage years.

For example, in the opening story, “Big World,” the narrator and his pal Biggie have dreams of glory about leaving town as soon as they graduate high school. They fantasize about abandoning their part-time jobs at “the meatworks,” buying a souped-up van and finding a place where they can go “walking in a shady banana plantation with a girl in a cheesecloth dress.”

But the reality, when they finally blow out of town in a much humbler vehicle, doesn’t correspond with the dream, and the narrator realizes with a sad shock that he and Biggie are on paths that will soon diverge forever.

Other standouts include “Aquifer,” about an implacable childhood bully and his cruel, anonymous fate; “Cockleshell,” a bittersweet story about puppy love undercut with family tragedy; and “Family,” in which two feuding brothers meet for a fateful argument while surfing. Like all the pieces in this strong collection, each is a compact gem.