Back in 2012, I was sent a copy of Tim Winton’s Land’s Edge: A Coastal Memoir to read for a magazine I was working on. In it Winton writes about his passion for his country’s coastline, recalling childhood beach holidays then learning to surf as a lonely adolescent. I’d read and enjoyed Winton’s fiction but was unprepared for the beauty of his writing about nature. To an extent Island Home complements Land’s Edge as its subtitle suggests. It’s a heartfelt hymn of praise to Australia’s often awe-inspiring landscape but it’s also an urgent exhortation, aimed squarely at his fellow countrymen, to sit up and recognise its beauty before it’s too late.
Rather than a straightforward narrative, Island Home takes the form of a set of essays each prefaced with a short vignette from Winton’s life. It begins with Winton taking his nearly four-year-old son for a walk in Ireland, dashing for home in a hailstorm. Once there, his son points to a picture of his grandparents taken in Australia and asks if it’s real. Time to go home. Winton weaves his memories and experiences of the Australian landscape through the ten sections of his book, ranging from the rise of environmentalism in the 1980s and his own conversion to the ‘greenie’ cause to the way in which the landscape is portrayed in Australian literature. It’s an intensely personal book, impassioned in tone. Winton’s own reverence for his country’s landscape contrasts sharply with his often exasperated perceptions of his compatriots’ attitudes. He saves a particular rancour for the Australian publishing industry, apparently still suffering from a post-colonial hangover and fretting about how Winton’s novels – firmly rooted in the natural world – will be perceived in London or New York. Given that he’s won the Miles Franklin Award four times and been shortlisted for the Booker twice, presumably they’ve come round to the idea.
Just as with Land’s Edge, the most striking thing about Winton’s book for me is the writing. There are a multitude of vividly poetic descriptions which sing off the page, particularly in the memory passages that preface each essay. Here’s a smattering: ‘Hail slants in, pinging and peppering us’ in Ireland; ‘beef carcasses sliding by like dry-cleaned coats on endless racks’ in Albany; a beach ‘looks lifeless but the whole place pops and sighs and rattles’. The final section is entitled ‘Paying Respect’. It’s a tribute both to Winton’s friend Chapman who died in 2011 and to David Banggal Mowaljarlai’s lifelong attempts to educate European Australians about the land. Winton laments the lack of respect paid to the indigenous people saying that ‘Aboriginal wisdom is the most under-utilized intellectual and emotional resource this country has’. His book ends on a hopeful note as he looks towards a new generation. It’s a thought-provoking set of essays, not quite what I was expecting. I wonder what Australians make of it.
Not to beat about the bush – there’s a lot of sex in Carrie Tiffany’s novel and most of it not ornithological. I only mention it as the reviewer I commissioned to write about it when it came out in hardback emailed me to say that it was all too much for her. I was too busy to check it out but now that I’ve read the book I’m mystified. There is one aberrant incident but it hardly comes as a surprise and is treated with such gentle black humour as to be inoffensive. Well, to me, anyway, but you have been warned. Now let’s get on with the book
Set in a small Australian settlement in the 50s, Mateship with Birds is a tender portrayal of Harry, a dairy farmer who’s lived alone since his wife left him many years ago, fed up with their uneventful life. He lives next door to Betty and her two children, Michael and Little Hazel. Everyone quietly gets on with their lives which are mostly mundane with the occasional event rippling through, much like many of our own. It opens with a list of Harry’s cows’ names. He’s firm but affectionate with them, imagining them to be a ‘troupe’ of stars on tour and he their manager. He has a timid little whippet to herd them, fully aware that many farmers would laugh at him for it. He’s a birdwatcher who records his observations in a dairy account book. Next door Betty brings up her children, quietly letting assumptions that her husband died in the war stand. She gets on with her job as an aide in an old people’s nursing home, performing the most menial tasks with loving care and attention. These two lonely middle aged people, quietly losing whatever physical charms they once possessed but still yearning for sexual love, are so affectionately portrayed that you find yourself desperate for someone to make the first move.
What marks this fine novel out is its richly vibrant language and acutely observed characterisation. Both Harry and Betty are kind, sensitive and thoughtful: Harry is concerned about Michael’s fledgling relationship with Dora and what they may be getting up to so he sets about Michael’s sexual education, sensitive to the potential for embarrassment; Betty knowing that an old man in her nursing home is lonely changes her clothes at lunch time and re-enters the home to visit him as his ‘wife’. Harry’s bird observations look like poetry in the narrow confines of his dairy ledger book, and become it when he uses words like ‘bandit-dandy’. Sunlight ‘shines ginger through [the cows’] ears’. Characters are quietly accepting of their fate. Even when Mues, Harry’s reprobate neighbour, lures Little Hazel into his shed with promises of a Shetland pony only to expose himself she merely reflects wryly that you never really get what you want: ‘Adults are part of [the] pretence – they hold one thing in their hand and call it another’. All of these elements combine to make this novel a complete delight: funny, beautifully expressed and written with huge affection for ordinary unglamorous people which means most of us. The last line made me laugh out loud from sheer joy.