Landscape of conflict

I knew every nook and cranny of the tea trees along the dunes and every trail and bike track through the bush. I understood the weather patterns like they were part of me. The big westerlies that pushed up the swell, the southerlies that brought the chill up from Antarctica and, in summer, the northerlies that blew heat down off the inland.
— The Road to Winter, Mark Smith

It’s been years since a virus wiped out the majority of Australia’s population. In Angowrie, a fictional town on Victoria’s Surf Coast, teenager Finn has survived almost entirely alone, save for the company of his dog, Rowdy. With a hidden stash of supplies stockpiled from ‘before’ and a thorough knowledge of hunting and fishing, Finn has made it through two years of isolation. After the catastrophe of the loss of everyone he knows, he has finally got into the rhythm of survival.

But when a girl shows up on the beach one day, his world shifts again. Rose is a ‘Siley’ – an asylum seeker – on the run from the gang of Wilder men who’ve held her captive. She’s one of the few women untouched by the virus, along with her sister, but the two of them have become separated in the course of their escape. When Rose is incapacitated by an infected wound, Finn sets out to find her sister, Kas, and bring her back to Angowrie.

Image: Text Publishing

Image: Text Publishing

Image: Text Publishing

Image: Text Publishing

As for the wider situation, the reader knows only what Finn knows. On the cusp of adolescence at the time the virus strikes, Finn is aware only of the quarantine, the resulting chaos, and the personal tragedies that ultimately leave him alone in a ghost town. It’s hinted that the virus was somehow linked to global warming, which manifested in extreme weather and tidal changes, but the focus of the story is on the here and now: Finn’s struggle to navigate a once-familiar, sparsely populated landscape where some are simply trying to survive and others to take control.

The author’s love for his environment clings to every word of Mark Smith’s description. Though his prose is sparse, the details he calls attention to paint a vivid picture. Finn, his protagonist, is intimately familiar with the flora and weather patterns of the coastal town he has always called home. He notes the ways that the tides and seasons have changed in preceding years; he uses them to his advantage, and prepares meticulously for what’s coming, in order to keep going.

Yet what grounds Finn most of all is surfing. The passages in which Finn takes to the water have an almost meditative feel. This pastime, totally unrelated to survival, reminds Finn that he is human; and as a character, it is a powerful means of connection with the reader. A typical Aussie even in the face of adversity, Finn is called to return home throughout the series by the promise of good surf.

Every ten metres or so there is debris blocking our way. The bush is eerily quiet – the wind hardly stirs the leaves, as though everything is finding its breath again after the storms.


In the second book of the series Finn must travel away from home again, into the eponymous Wilder Country, where a gang of men holds sway over a rural inland region. In a world where fuel has become scarce to the point of nonexistence, all ground must be covered on foot, on horseback, or by bicycle – if you can find a horse or a bike. No journey feels insignificant when the cracked remains of main roads must be avoided and trails must be carved out through bushland. We see the changing landscape through Finn’s eyes as he moves away from the coast and up into the hills.

Both landscapes and seascapes play important roles in Finn's journey.  Image:    Jeremy Bishop  on  Unsplash

Both landscapes and seascapes play important roles in Finn's journey. Image: Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

The story moves so quickly it’s worth pausing for breath once in a while to soak up the imagery. In an author event at the Kyneton children’s bookstore Squishy Minnie, Smith mentioned that he’d cut much of the description down to the bare bones to suit a younger audience and quicken the pace, but in several places I found myself wishing I could read those unedited passages and see more of this world through Smith’s eyes.

It’s a vision of the near future that’s made all the more frightening by the ring of truth that all good dystopias hold: a tinge of familiarity and possibility, even when the story itself pushes those possibilities to the extreme. At this point in time the publication of the third book in the Winter trilogy is yet to be announced. It’s safe to say, however, that following the pattern of the series so far, we can expect this cast of tough young characters to face their greatest challenges yet in this feral Victorian landscape – and perhaps get a glimpse into the state of the wider world.

Purchase your copies of The Road to Winter and Wilder Country from Text Publishing.

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Alex Mullarky

Alex is a writer and National Geographic Explorer who combines her love of the environment, adventure and animals in her work. She has Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in the Arts and is training as a veterinary nurse. She is Publications Sub-editor for Wild Melbourne and Remember the Wild.

You can find her on Twitter at @saesteorra

Banner image courtesy of Amy Mackay on Unsplash

'The land is a book, waiting to be read.'

Catherine McKinnon’s Storyland gives readers something that many novels don’t: a glimpse at the enormity of time, and the vast capacity for change across centuries of social and environmental disruption. It's a novel that has skyrocketed its way to the top of my 2017 favourites list, and is one that I will no doubt re-read in the near future. For it deserves re-reading – there is so much to miss on the first read, but one is invited into the story with such ease that I found it difficult to slow my pace.

Image: HarperCollins Australia

Image: HarperCollins Australia

Spanning hundreds of years, Storyland is a novel of time and environmental change. Set on the banks of Lake Illawarra in New South Wales under the eternal shadow of an immense and ancient fig tree, each chapter, or short story almost, explores the lives of a variety of characters and how each plays out in the presence of these surroundings. Some chapters depict epic adventure, others extreme violence, and one an innocent understanding of the world from the perspective of a child.

The ability of McKinnon to portray deep and relatable character development is a major highlight of this book. From Will Martin, the cabin boy accompanying George Bass and Matthew Flinders upon the Tom Thumb sailing boat in 1796, to Nada, the bodiless mind of a woman from 2033 being interrogated by future authorities for the Storyland project in 2717– there is a wide breadth of characters, each of whom interacts with the surrounding natural world in diverse ways. Despite the dystopian twist of the novel, the events of Storyland never appear far-fetched. In fact, they are savagely real. McKinnon's writing reveals bit by bit the diverse realities of each character, none of which seem too unbelievable, despite the often unusual circumstances. 

Although the book skips over many years from chapter to chapter, the rate of environmental change due to human overdevelopment and climate change is still frightening. An incredibly short period of time in the wider scheme of things, a lapse of 100 years sees European settlers move in and violently take advantage of the local Indigenous peoples, with one ex-convict resorting to an act of extreme violence. Later, the gruesome murder of a teenager in 1900, her body shockingly discovered in the local creek. Then, the lively adventures of three young children on Lake Illawara in 1998, told through the honest and naive perspective of Bel. And finally, the chaos of a civilisation on the verge of breakdown, as rising sea waters decimate the homes of those living near the coast.

To the east, Port Kembla - that in my childhood had been a place of fire-blowing smokestacks - Port Kembla is gone and between where it once was and where I now stand there is only water.

The novel’s structure of multiple stories taking place generations apart is definitely not a new concept. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas springs to mind, and the similarities between that epic cross-country, cross-century novel and McKinnon’s work are obvious. However, McKinnon makes the format her own in Storyland and it’s refreshing to read such a novel written in an Australian context, with strong environmental themes. I was not surprised to learn of McKinnon's background as a playwright, as each chapter of the novel seems to function as a different 'act', with haunting scenery and reflective monologues throughout.

The stunning Lake Illawarra in New South Wales is the setting for each chapter of the novel.  Image: Wikimedia Commons

The stunning Lake Illawarra in New South Wales is the setting for each chapter of the novel. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Storyland vividly portrays the relationships between Indigenous Australians, European Australians, and the landscapes that they inhabit. The title itself implies the importance of promoting the stories of Australian landscapes and people – how do we connect to the land, why should we care about it, and how does it change around us and, in many cases, because of us? McKinnon seems to consistently implore the reader to connect with the natural world and their fellow human: a suggestion that who we are is so strongly linked to where we come from and where we grow up. The intense storylines throughout the novel are more than just great fiction – they are raw, real and confronting in their exploration of humankind's inescapable connection to the natural landscapes we call home.

One group names the town for the land that is strong and solid behind it, the other names it for the water that lies before it or above it. As if one looks at how boundaries are marked, and the other at how they might merge.

The richness of the characters and the thrill of finding that their story isn’t over when their initial chapters end (for fans of Cloud Atlas, you’ll know what I mean) make Storyland an unusual, vibrant Australian novel that I believe deserves much more praise, from both critics and readers. If you want, or need, a push in the right direction when it comes to appreciating just how dire the effects of climate change could be, or you simply want to comprehend the often inexplicable sublimity of Australia’s natural landscapes, then this novel is a must-read. It is a piece of fiction that has made me realise just how much of Australia I have left to see. There are so many lives being lived, and that have been lived, across so many different landscapes, giving each area its own unique history within a longer history of Indigenous habitation, and an even longer history still of evolutionary and geological time. It gives me hope that as Australians, we can learn from the past, prepare for the future, and set aside time to reach out to nature in the process. 

Storyland is published by HarperCollins Australia and can be purchased at Readings.


Rachel Fetherston

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 Liam Pozz on Unsplash