Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 10, 2010

The Vintage and the Gleaning (2010), by Jeremy Chambers

When Alex Miller and M J Hyland commend a book as they do on this one’s blurb, a new author appears to have it made, but I can’t quite make up my mind about The Vintage and the Gleaning.

The writing is mostly beautiful, the characters credible, and the plot’s intriguing, but there were times when the dialogue was just plain exasperating.

The story takes place in a town in the north-eastern wine-making region of Victoria.  The characters all seem to have had a charisma bypass.  The central character, Smithy, used to be a shearer but now he’s a labourer who’s taking a break from heavy drinking on doctor’s orders.  He’s in poor health but still working in a vineyard, doing demanding physical labour and spending his days with the hard-drinking labourers who form the team.  It was their dialogue which tested my patience almost beyond endurance.

Win anything on the races? Wallace asks me.
Nope, I say.
I run my finger along the edge of the shovel.  More than half the blade’s been worn down and the edge isn’t straight any more.  It’s far from straight.  It’s crooked all over the place.
Win anything on the lottery? Wallace asks.
Nope, I say.
I knock the dirt off the shovel and put oil along the blade.
You win anything? I ask.
Me? Says Wallace.  Nuh.
I show him the shovel blade.
I know, says Wallace.
Wallace finishes his shovel and sticks it in the ground.  He takes another one off the tray and knocks the dirt off it.
You hear about George Alister? Wallace asks me.
No, I say.
Jeez, he says.  Hasn’t heard about George Alister.
I hawk and spit over the side of the tray and reach back for the water bottle and drink and spit again.  Wallace hands me a stone from the toolbox and I start putting an edge on the crooked blade.
Wallace picks at a splinter.
Bloody hell, he says.  Hasn’t heard about George Alister
. (p2)

And so it goes on.  Perhaps what passes for conversation here is authentic, I wouldn’t know, but it wore very thin indeed after a while.  I was relieved when the story moved on and these inarticulate mumblings gave way to Smithy’s memories.

Sober now after a lifetime of alcoholism, Smithy begins to confront the way he has wasted his life, but he’s not the only one.  His guilt, regret and nostalgia is mirrored by Charlotte’s, a sad specimen if ever there was one.  She’s much younger than him, and as he tells her in a futile attempt to jolt her into making an effort to start again, there’s still a chance for her to make something of her life.

Unlike him, she had considerable advantages.  His childhood was a misery (I’m trying to avoid spoilers), but she made choices which transformed her prospects and now she has to take refuge from a dangerous relationship.  Holed up at Smithy’s she tells her story; it reads like a cautionary tale for adolescents in country towns.

This is no comfortable rural  community or tree-changer’s paradise. Apart from the hopelessness of the inhabitants, the weather is malevolent and events are biblical in an Old Testament vengeance kind of way.  The overwhelming mood is one of pessimism, and it’s not just Smithy’s recognition that he’s too old and sick to make anything of his life now, and not just Charlotte’s self-inflicted victimhood.  The other people in the town are just as gloomy and apathetic, and the only ones with any spirit are the boys whose sole ambition is to learn to drink like the rest of the men.

Despite the sense of wasted lives, these characters do begin to exert a kind of fascination.  As Smithy recovers his memories we learn about his tragic history and his relationships in the town begin to be revealed.  Charlotte on the other hand in the last part of the novel launches into a loooooong monologue which tested my patience almost as much as the men’s inane repetitions.  It goes for 49 pages, a veritable flood of words breaching the dam walls of this young woman’s years of silence.

Molly Bloom she’s not.  She’s a dreary young woman drowning in self-pity.  I understand what Chambers was trying to do, but I think it could have been achieved in half the number of pages.

Still, I kept reading. I wasn’t sure if anything was going to happen, but I had to keep reading to find out.

Somehow this book reminded me of Camus’ The Outsider.  It’s been 20 years since I read that so I can be challenged on the detail, but The Vintage and the Gleaning is an existentialist quest for meaning and its themes include angst, (Charlotte’s), nihilism (the town’s) and alienation and stoicism (Smithy’s).     So despite my doubts, this is a young writer with promise, and definitely one to watch.

Now the pub is drowned in the full roar of drunkenness.  Men knock against each other.  Stools tip and slide and strike the boards.  There is the clatter of glasses as Les’s wife puts down crate after crate.  The ring of the cash register, the floor thumping with the steps of men heavy with drink, Les’s wife’s voice raised in outrage as some drunk overturns a table and an unsteady hand lets a glass drop, shattering on the tiles to hilarious uproar.  A man slumps his head against a wall and vomits up beer and bile and the stench of both.  Lips, once loosened, pour, and the voices continue raised, men spewing forth what they have kept inside themselves for days or weeks or for a lifetime and they see only the blur of faces and they speak not to men but to something greater than men and they do not know that it is empty and uncaring.  And there are men who talk and there are men who are silent and those who talk do not know what they are saying and those who are silent do not listen, but drink for the very silence, for the silences of their souls.  And I was such a man. (p91)

That’s good, you’d have to agree…very good indeed.

 Jeremy Chambers explains the genesis of this book at Readings.

PS In an illuminating interview by Kevin Rabelais in The Weekend Australian (Out of the Shadows) Chambers says this about the dialogue:

‘The way they talk in the vineyards, the repetitions, how they talk…there’s so little to talk about.  They’ll just drag things out as long as they can.  I realised that this is what you get in Beckett’s plays’.   ( Out of the Shadows in The Weekend Australian, Aug 14-15, 2010)

Chambers worked in vineyards when he was younger, so he knows the lifestyle.

‘Those summers, I spent the life of a labourer.  You work during the day.  You go to the pub and drink until teatime.  Friday nights, everyone would get very, very drunk.  And Sundays, you start drinking in the morning and drink all day.’

He also talks about how the labourers ‘ lives were ‘working and drinking and Tattslotto.’   So while country folk may perhaps demur, it sounds as if my reservations about the authenticity of his characters’ dialogue were unfounded.

Chambers also says that he was influenced by William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Alex Miller.

Author:  Jeremy Chambers
Title: The Vintage and the Gleaning
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2010
ISBN: 9781921656507
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing.


  1. Ah, I’m going to read this book soon(ish) too – it looks intriguing (and who can beat the setting, eh?). It’s always good to check out new writers. Will come back and check your review properly then.


  2. Oh yes, I see what you mean about the dialogue.

    “I run my finger along the edge of the shovel. More than half the blade’s been worn down and the edge isn’t straight any more. It’s far from straight. It’s crooked all over the place.”

    I want to get my big fat red editor’s pen and strike out “It’s far from straight. It’s crooked all over the place” because it’s just repeating what’s already been stated but using a different series of words.

    That said, this sounds like an interesting book…


  3. It is interesting, Kim, and Sue, I think you’d like it too. I forgot to say in my review that Chambers writes with a sense of frustrated affection, maybe he’s even a version of Smithy himself, trying to break through the torpor, because he actually does care about the place and would like it to be different so that people are happier. He’s not judgemental, he’s just writing it as he sees it.


  4. Dialogue can completely kill a book for me Lisa, and despite how good this one could be the dialogue you showed me would put me off. Maybe thats me being too harsh?


    • Well, normally I would agree…but in this book, the author pulls back just in time! I did find myself being drawn into the story and I found myself caring about Smithy and wanting to know his story.


  5. Re. I want to get my big fat red editor’s pen …

    I don’t. That looks to me like conversational emphasis, and it’s not uncommon; not in life, and not in books, where it gives the appearance of life. Dickens does it all the time. Here he is as David Copperfield, in love with Dora: “There was dust I believe. There was a good deal of dust, I believe. I have a faint impression that Mr. Spenlow remonstrated with me for riding in it; but I knew of none. I was sensible of a mist of love and beauty about Dora but of nothing else … My comfort is, Miss Mills understood me. Miss Mills alone could enter into my feelings thoroughly.”

    Here’s a panicking woman in Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children. “I can’t face the disgrace. I can’t go back while she’s there when I think of what she’s done to me. A sister of mine! — oh I don’t know how I can bear it! How can this happen to me, when I’ve worked so hard … I can’t face it. I must get temporary leave. Oh, it’s dreadful, it might ruin me, a thing like that.”

    By the logic of the red pen, we can strike out the last sentence (she’s already let us know that it’s dreadful and will probably ruin her) as well as “I can’t face it” (we can see that pretty clearly) but by the logic of speech we should keep them.


    • Yes, Deane, but… We all know that authentic conversations include mumbles, mutters and repetitions, not to mention ‘um’, ‘ah’, ‘er’ and so on, but authors who replicate this to any great extent run a real risk of annoying their readers. Dickens (from my recollection) did it rarely, perhaps because his stories were so plot-driven. His caricature-characters speak in repetitions, but they were economical signposts to comic characters not attempts at authentic conversations. IMO Stead overdoes it. Her characters go on and on, building up the angst to a crescendo, and while it works some of the time, it became for me very wearying. As I say in the review, I don’t know whether uneducated blokes not much in touch with their feelings talk this way amongst themselves, but I felt that Chambers could have given the same impression without depicting quite so much of it. The rhythm of it reminded me of one of the comic characters in those British sitcoms in Cornwall or Somerset – perhaps that drongo in The Vicar of Dibley? – and I think that was not, in the context of this book, what Chambers intended.


  6. I haven’t read the book and can’t comment on Chambers’ intentions, so I’ll take it that you’re right there, but I don’t think that the churning effect of repetition and near-repetition — and list-making, which is another kind of repetition — in Dickens, is an incidental bit of character business, I think it’s his rhythm and his heart. Here he is, speaking as a narrator in The Old Curiosity Shop: “It was pleasant to observe the fresh flowers in the room, the pet bird with a green bough shading his little cage, the breath of freshness and youth which seemed to rustle through the old dull house and hover round the child. It was curious, but not so pleasant, to turn from the beauty and grace of the girl, to the stooping figure, care-worn face, and jaded aspect of the old man. As he grew weaker and more feeble, what would become of this lonely little creature; poor protector as he was …” So we have this roundelay of fresh, pleasant, green set against another roundelay of old, worn, dull, two revolutions in opposite directions, like two cogwheels pushing the whole machinery of the scene forward. This is repetitive, and it isn’t a caricature speaking, it’s the author. David Copperfield isn’t a caricature either. He’s the lead.

    Here’s Dickens repeating no in his final book, Edwin Drood: “Rosa, having no relation that she knew of in the world, had, from the seventh year of her age, known no home but the Nuns’ House, and no mother but Miss Twinkleton.” Here he is doing a similar thing all the way back at the beginning of his career, in Sketches by Boz: “The egotistical couple may be young, old, middle-aged, well to do, or ill to do; they may have a small family, a large family, or no family at all. There is no outward sign by which an egotistical couple may be known and avoided. They come upon you unawares; there is no guarding against them. No man can of himself be forewarned or forearmed against an egotistical couple.” So I think repetition is very much his thing. And not only repetition of a word like “no” or a phrase like “egotistical couple,” but a repetition of meaning as well. At the end of the Drood paragraph, Rosa’s father is filled with “wild despair” and “bowed-down grief,” is a “poor” man (emotionally, not financially), and “broken-hearted,” all in the same sentence. By the logic of the red pen, this is overkill. But it is very much Dickens.

    As for Stead: why-em-em-vee. Jarrell found her dialogue overwhelming as well, but to me it’s constantly vivifying. I could read twice as much Henny and three times as much Sam. Her speech only really exhausts me in A Little Tea, A Little Chat, and there it’s the anger that kills. Reading that book is like being pummeled.


  7. You know I had to look up why-em-em-vee, don’t you *chuckle*!


  8. LOL, moi aussi! What world do we live in Lisa?


  9. An exciting new one with a language we need to learn maybe?


  10. Occurs to me in hindsight that I could have made things clearer by not turning an acronym phonetic


  11. *chuckle* I can’t speak for Sue, but in my case, it wouldn’t have helped LOL.


  12. Nope me neither! Anyhow, I did a Google search on both the acronym and phonetic versions to make sure I got what you meant!


  13. […] is a very new book, but it has also been reviewed by Lisa at ANZlitLovers. She too believes Chambers is a writer to […]


  14. I just read Whisperinggums review of this and on the whole it sounds like a good first book from this novelist. Perhaps it was a little ambitous to include ALL the themes you mentioned – angst, nihilism alienation and stoicism!


    • Hi Tom, is it not in the nature of first novelists to be ambitious? After all, it takes courage to write the novel and even more courage to submit it to a publisher, so perhaps it is not surprising to venture into ambitious themes as well.
      In an ideal world, editors would have the time to rein in the over-ambitious without spoiling the first novel or discouraging its author….


  15. Interesting discussion! I agree with the criticisms of the book taking on too many themes, and Charlotte’s monologue being tiresome, but definitely not about the dialogue – with one reservation. Having worked in similar jobs, I believe beyond doubt Chambers has done the same – and been a great observer. The repetition, the endless talk about the same stuff at the same time, the threatening tone under bland phrases (Wallace ‘encouraging’ the young workers to keep up with his drinking pace, but really issuing an order). It’s very real, especially when considering the boredom (nothing to do but drink and play the Lotto), the fact that they’re talking while working in intense heat, and drinking so much their brains can barely function. The other element I found very real is the almost pathological belief in hard yakka, the characters as proud of their ruined bones and joints as they are of the strong muscles that cover them.

    For me, the beautiful and tragic element of the story is Smithy’s trying to break out of the numbness, to reach out and communicate with others, and to reflect on his life. But with his fellow workers, his sobriety will always make him suspect and to middle-class characters like Charlotte his thoughts and disappointments are inconsequential.

    Oh, and the dialogue reservation? There was no swearing! Considering the way Chambers nailed his characters’ speech patterns so well otherwise, I wonder why he left it out? It must have been deliberate.


    • Hello Cootie, nice to meet you and thank you for sharing your thoughts about this book. I agree that it has a lot going for it, and I certainly don’t disagree about its obvious authenticity – I just felt that there didn’t need to be so much of the workers’ dialogue to make the point.
      And you’re right about Smithy’s efforts to communicate, it did evoke pity. In fact, just thinking about this book, three months after reading it, that’s what has stayed with me.


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