I've always loved the beach in winter. Fierce, rolling surf; stark winds that knock the breath out of you and shower a veil of saltwater over your face; a sense that these ocean waters have been there forever, oblivious to human life and death, yet existing to invigorate our sense of self and also to dispel it. Whether or not we feel a connection to the ocean, it remains.
But this is not unusual. Nature often complements the way we humans think and feel. Although still existing on its own, the natural world can mirror both the best and worst parts of ourselves, whether we want it to or not.
Karen Viggers’ The Stranding aptly demonstrates how fiction plays a part in revealing the intricate and sometimes fragile bond that we share with nature. Set on the coast of New South Wales in the small rural community of Merrigan, this novel is, at its heart, a love story, although not your typical one. Washed up and soon-to-be divorcee Lex Henderson arrives here from Sydney, having purchased a secluded old coastal house that looks out onto the tumbling ocean. A quiet new start is what Lex is hoping for, but it’s far from what he gets. Meeting the locals, he realises that his purchase of the house has sparked some unwanted interest in him, as it previously belonged to a long-standing local family. But Lex has a secret, and he revels in the seclusion of his new home as he attempts to come to terms with a past tragedy.
He unknowingly befriends a descendant of the family, Callista Bennett: an artist who resides deep in the nearby forest where she takes inspiration from local nature to create beautiful, thought-provoking paintings. From the beginning, Lex and Callista’s relationship is an explosive one, going from friends, to hesitant lovers, to something else much more complicated. It's not difficult to be frustrated by the lack of awareness between them, and the decisions they make to the detriment of their deeper connection. The story follows their experiences over the time Lex stays in Merrigan. From demonstrating the intricacies of rural town life, to depicting the very real struggles of love, marriage, family, and being human in a changing world, this book definitely covers a lot of bases.
Lex becomes increasingly obsessed with the whales seen migrating along the coast, from both an emotional and historical perspective. Poring over the dusty books left by the previous owners of his beachside home, Lex is angry to learn of the family’s past connection with whaling, and is confused by their current involvement in the local whale-watching industry. Simultaneously, Callista is battling her own inner demons. A family that she lacks a connection to, a past that she'd rather forget, and the struggles of a, well, struggling artist all make for the never-ending chaos that is her life.
Whilst raising issues of whaling and environmental protection, the novel is by no means didactic. It instead explores both the restorative and thought-provoking power of nature; how it brings people together, but also pushes them apart. Lex’s choice to come to Merrigan and experience the surrounding natural wonders speaks volumes about the emotional impact of the environment. His escape from the city, whilst also an escape from his job, ex-partner, and secret tragedy, represents his willingness and need to be immersed in nature in order to heal. Not a new idea by any means, but one beautifully depicted through Viggers’ writing. Nevertheless, she doesn't paint eastern Australia’s unforgiving coastline as a perfect world. Rather, natural landscapes are portrayed as rugged, complex, frightening, and at times very dangerous. If anything, though, this enhances their power to restore the emotional wellbeing of Lex and Callista as individuals, whilst complicating their already fraught relationship.
As the two are still attempting to navigate the troubled waters of each other's lives, a whale is beached in Merrigan, sparking the most climactic chapters of the novel. The panic that ensues raises some surprising ethical questions. Should we rescue or euthanise stranded whales? Is whaling ever an acceptable practice to participate in? What part does the media play in animal rescues? The event also introduces the very clear message that both Lex and Callista are also stranded, each experiencing intense feelings of isolation, even in the company of those who love them. The book is just as much about Lex and Callista's emotional stranding as it is about the beaching of the whale.
But it's the way Viggers describes the natural surroundings of Merrigan that made this book a memorable read for me. There are passages that explore the fierceness of the sea ('The sea battered at the sand like a great foaming beast and hunks of seaweed were strewn thickly all the way from the water's edge to the high tide mark.') and passages that reveal the calming qualities of ocean waters, and the overwhelming sense of both belonging and loneliness that they instill ('Looking out across the flickering sea he watched the swell rolling in... He felt his breathing slowing, deepening. The rhythm calmed him. The rhythmic emptiness of the endless sea.').
Perhaps what I liked best was how casually Viggers treats issues of nature and environmentalism within the wider fictional story. Not in a callous sense, no, but rather in a way that highlights the presence of nature without over-emphasising it. Otherwise, I feel, the work would have read more didactically. This strategy, whether intentional or not, also zeroes in on a question close to my heart - how do we bring nature to the fore of fiction without it seeming obvious, or overly purposeful?
Many readers read for enjoyment, and not for education, so including themes such as climate change and the human-animal relationship in a subtle, albeit significant way is an important technique that I believe more authors should employ. Human relationships equal human interest; finding a way to demonstrate the importance of nature whilst exploring what it means to be human could potentially encourage readers to come away from a book with more than just a good story. Can fiction result in deeper connections to nature? We can't definitively say just yet. What can be said, though, is that nature itself, both its restorative and its terrifying side, provides a means for some of us to look deeper into ourselves, understanding identity, relationships, and ecology just that little bit better.
Rachel is an Arts and Science graduate and a freelance writer who is passionate about communicating the importance of the natural world through literature. She has completed an Honours year in Literary Studies, involving research into environmental philosophy and the significance of the non-human other. She is the Publications Manager for Wild Melbourne.
You can find her on Twitter at @RJFether.
Banner image courtesy of Sho Hatakeyama / Unsplash