reviews

An unseen distance

One of Tim Winton’s most recent works, The Boy Behind the Curtain is an absolute gem that delves deep into the author’s past and reflects on his inner musings of life and the world around him. The collection of 22 stories, 16 of which have been previously published, is intimately woven together and draws upon the past to delightfully expose Winton’s innermost mind and the heartbeat of his childhood.

Image: Penguin Random House

Image: Penguin Random House

Winton’s past is filled with simple yet dynamic day-to-day events. Winton describes his experience of being the son of a policeman, what it was like growing up in the church, and an ever-growing passion for and relationship with the environment. The poignancy of the novel is not just in the description of his stories, but his ability to express how these events shaped the man he is today. The plethora of his unique life experiences takes us directly into the shoes of a schoolboy on a farm, a university undergraduate enrolled in the only creative writing school in Australia, a surfer, and an environmental activist. No matter the outcome of each story, Winton’s reflections focus on how his underlying views and beliefs shape his response to the situation. More often than not, Winton’s inextricable connection to the marine environment provides the lens through which he views the world - that is, a world that is so precious, so unique and yet delicate; that is worth all that we have to protect it from human exploitation. Given our strong marine connections at Wild Melbourne, it’s also where I spend most of my time exploring.

For any reader of Winton’s novels, his strong connection with and passion for the marine ecosystem is well known. Nothing is lost in this novel, either, when Winton ingeniously recreates feelings of life in between the land and the shore; the shoreline, the waves and what lies beneath. This is where Winton thrives.

The chapter titled ‘The Wait and Flow’ is just one example where the author delves into his love for surfing. To Winton’s surprise, he was asked one day why he surfed when most of the time it’s just bobbing in the cold ocean waiting for waves. Even as a surfer myself, I concede that’s a valid point! Winton responds, ‘And I didn’t know how to answer. Almost everyday of my life is shaped according to the weather, most acutely to swell, tide and wind direction. After surfing for over fifty years, you would expect I’d be able to give a better account of myself.’

Of course on later reflection, surfing for Winton is so much more than that and I certainly agree. The wave turns up ‘from the unseen distance’. If you manage to meet it, ‘you live for a short while in the eternal tense. The feeling is divine.’

Winton also explores the seemingly simple yet methodical sway of the tides. At first glance, there appears to be nothing particularly special about the incoming and subsequent outgoing tides that occur four times a day. Merely an empty beach with little signs of life present one day, then a beach full of life the next.

And yet it holds me captive, has me returning morning and evening, high tide and low, because it’s never the same place. It holds its secrets close.

He then challenges the idea of not ‘objectifying’ whatever is washed up on the beach. Instead of seeing the piece of bleached coral or the ragged seaweed holdfasts as objects just washed up on the shore, they are subjects each with a story to tell: ‘For the moment, the bleached head of coral that lies face-down in the rockpool is shelter to the deadly blue-ringed octopus, but before this it was home to half a million lives… a minuscule part of what it takes to keep the deeps alive and therefore all life on earth’. Furthermore, ‘To tread here and never pay tribute, to glance and just see objects, is to be spiritually impoverished.’ A subtle yet powerfully different way to view the world around us.

In  The Boy Behind the Curtain , Winton celebrates the life found in rockpools and the objects - or subjects - washed up in the often unappreciated intertidal zones of Australia's beaches.  Image:  James Donaldson  on  Unsplash

In The Boy Behind the Curtain, Winton celebrates the life found in rockpools and the objects - or subjects - washed up in the often unappreciated intertidal zones of Australia's beaches. Image: James Donaldson on Unsplash

Finally, Winton explores and challenges the peculiar demonisation of sharks in Australia in the chapter ‘Demon Shark’. In general, Winton describes how it’s true that Australians tend to have a very positive and sympathetic attitude to the treatment of animals, ‘whether it’s a dog being beaten or a bear tortured for its bile, cruelty and thoughtless slaughter offend us.’ When it comes to sharks, however, it’s a different matter: ‘Other cultures have their wolves and bears… our demon is silent and it swims.’ Winton candidly explores the way that governments have managed the perception of sharks and openly criticises parts of the media for fear-mongering in order to sway public opinion; as Winton argues, ‘fear sells’.

This novel has it all, with a particular focus on the way life takes you in all directions, eventually shaping the person you are today. Readers will reach the end of the novel with a sense of how this particular man experiences life — metaphorically, philosophically. How he carries things; feels and makes sense of the world around him. This selection of short essays beautifully captures life in Australia and provokes a sense of inner searching that can only be done in the quietness of one’s room or reflecting in nature itself. It is a must-read for any Winton admirer or lover of the Australian environment.

The Boy Behind the Curtain is the third title in Winton's autobiographical trilogy. All three books in the series are available to purchase from Penguin Random House.

You can also read our reviews of Winton's Land's Edge: A Coastal Memoir and Island Home: A Landscape Memoir


Stephen McGain studied a Bachelor and Master of Science at the University of Melbourne. His Masters involved investigating the impacts that dredging and climate change might have on the important seagrass habitats that exist in Port Phillip Bay. He is currently studying a Diploma in Conservation Land Management in the hope of further contributing his knowledge and skills to the local community.


Banner image courtesy of Josh Withers on Unsplash.

Home is where the land is

When does a house become a home and when is a home more than just a place to live?

The feeling of home is an often intangible concept of where one feels inexplicably and intrinsically connected. We often refer to home as the house in which we live, where we grew up, or an area of attachment. While these are common associations, the sense of home means something different to everyone. In Island Home: A Landscape Memoir, Tim Winton explores how home is not just a house, the people or a city where one lives, but is rather developed through a deeper connection to the land itself.

Image: Penguin Random House

Image: Penguin Random House

Before delving any further though, I couldn’t help but ask myself, 'What does home actually mean to me?' Surprisingly, the first image that sprung to mind was a childhood memory of crawling around the backyard on all fours looking for bugs under rocks, climbing old, weathered trees and the scent of freshly cut grass eclipsing a twilight game of backyard cricket with the neighbours. To me, the immediate image of home was a mixture of both the people I lived with and the environment in which I grew up. Furthermore, home was an overwhelming sense of peace and contentment where I felt so assured of myself, that the outside world mattered very little. Even as you read this, the sense of what home means to you might become apparent.

Winton’s landscape memoir wondrously draws upon a host of different experiences and contemplations of how home is influenced firstly by childhood memories, but also formed and changed over time. Like many of us, the concept of home for Tim Winton has changed with age. Winton explores how he relished the idea of living overseas to work, yet when he finally arrived and lived there, it never felt like home: 'While I was duly impressed by what I saw, I could never connect bodily or emotionally.’

Interestingly, the feeling of home is most strongly experienced with an emotional attachment to a place of residence, even if we no longer live there. For example, Winton aptly summarises this by saying,

The ground feels firm beneath my feet. I don’t live there anymore, but it still feels like home.

For others, the connection of home may be something else entirely, such as the morning chorus of birds, endless days playing in the garden, family trips to the beach, a certain type of food cooked by parents, the pattering of little feet echoing through the corridors of the house, or falling asleep in front of a crackling fire.  For Winton, the feeling of home is felt through his inexplicable connection to the Australian landscape - the toing and froing of the tides, the Fremantle Doctor in the late afternoons, and the soil beneath his feet.

In the end, though, home is where the heart is and as Marcus Tullius Cicero said, ‘A home without books is like a body without a soul.’ Winton’s Island Home is a highly recommended read that not only the explores the concept of belonging, but allows us to gain an appreciation of the simple things that make up our everyday lives and the value of land in creating a sense of home.

Island Home: A Landscape Memoir is the second title in Winton's autobiographical trilogy. All three books in the series are available to purchase from Penguin Random House.

To read our review of Tim Winton's Land's Edge: A Coastal Memoir, see here.


Banner image of The Gap in Albany, WA is courtesy of Jan Hazevoet, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52468532

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

Living life in between

The veranda is an interval, a space, where life is improvised. The beach, in Australia, is the landscape equivalent of the veranda, a veranda at the edge of the continent.

This quote from Phillip Drew in Tim Winton’s book, Land’s Edge: A Coastal Memoir, accurately describes a life experienced by many who live near the coast.

Image: Penguin Random House

Image: Penguin Random House

Australians are inextricably linked to the coast. Over three quarters of our population live within 50km of the coastline and, considering the magnitude of our country, that says a lot about our lifestyle and desire to connect to the ocean.

When many Australians think of the coast, it is not unusual for multi-award winning author and environmentalist Tim Winton to come to mind. For anyone who has read his books, Winton draws upon and paints vivid pictures of Australian life in dynamic landscapes. His strong ties to the coastal landscape are particularly prominent, and in Land’s Edge, this is no exception.

Winton’s main focus is exploring life on the edge - that is, a life caught between the coast, the city, the Fremantle Doctor, and the ebbing and flowing of the tide. He explores how he has constantly been drawn towards the ocean, while also being torn away from it simultaneously. His reflections of childhood holidays at the beach, beachcombing, the sun, and the surf reveal an adult life, like so many of ours, that was immediately and so uniquely shaped by infanthood along the seashore.

During the early years, his appreciation of the ocean was innocent, as he explored rock pools and the initial wonders of the life-giving ocean. Later, it became a mature respect as he grasped with the raw power and authority the ocean commands. Through all of this, the longing for the coast became irreversible.

Winton also beautifully captures nature in its simplicity and how it influences a person. In Winton’s case, it was ‘outside in the mornings, in the water; the wind would drive him indoors in the afternoons, to books and reading. This ebb and flow became a way of life.'

From page one, I was so completely and utterly captivated that I couldn’t put the book down - so much so that I read the book in a day. This may have been because I feel equally connected to the ocean and its calming yet often raw and wild appeal. It may also have been because Winton so beautifully captures the wonder and awe one feels when experiencing a raging storm or the peacefulness of a calm body of water with the fresh smell of salt bouncing around in your nostrils. More likely than not, it is a combination of the two.

Ultimately, Winton's book is a must-read memoir in which an exploration of the Australian connection with the coast demonstrates the intensely shaping influence of an ‘in-between’ life.

Land's Edge: A Coastal Memoir is the first title in Winton's autobiographical trilogy. All three books in the series are available to purchase from Penguin Random House.


Stephen McGain

Stephen studied a Bachelor and Master of Science at the University of Melbourne. His Masters involved investigating the impacts that dredging and climate change might have on the important seagrass habitats that exist in Port Phillip Bay. He is currently studying a Diploma in Conservation Land Management in the hope to further contribute his knowledge and skills to the local community.


Banner image courtesy of Photo by Matthew Kane on Unsplash