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.