When I was a teenager, I lived a few blocks from a beach, and many hours were spent staring off at the ocean’s horizon, or testing my limits in the Atlantic’s powerful waves. So it was with a strong sense of simpatico that I began Tim Winton’s memoir, Land’s Edge. The book is almost more of an extended prose poem than a novel or even memoir. It isn’t inclusive. Instead it moves back and forth between memory and the present, exploring a range of perspectives of the sea, the beach and the coast in general, and Western Australian in particular. There is much that existing Winton fans will find here that forms a backdrop to his extensive fiction oeuvre — as well as some of the more internal experiences that have guided his activism work as patron of the Australian Marine Conservation Society.
The lovely little hardback has attractive photography by Australian coastal photographer Narelle Autio between each chapter, making it an attractive gift book, though perhaps less so than the original 1993 release, which was coffee table sized. With a tiny nod to Richard Flanagan’s multi-coloured text in Gould’s Book of Fish, the memory passages, which cover a range of ages from very young childhood to teenage, are in blue. I imagine that doing this is an expensive process for a printer, and, although some may find it gimmicky, personally I think it makes for a very rich feel to the book, especially coupled with the evocative images and the thick luxurious pages. You simply couldn’t replicate the tactile beauty of this book as object with an electronic version; however, as with all of Winton’s work, it’s the shear beauty of the writing that makes this so much more than an appealing artefact. Every line of this work could be written in stanzas instead of paragraphs and would still work:
“Under the sun the water shows its mottling of deeps and shallows, black and turquoise, reef and sand, dark and light, its coming and its going. The blunted swell butts against the barrier reef in feeble lines that lie down before the wind.” (1)
Throughout the book, and deftly woven into the narrative structure, Winton poses a number of serious questions. Why are we drawn to the sea, and what is its importance to us, how, in Australia, is the psychological importance of the sea shaped by the predominance of desert, what is our responsibility towards the sea as it changes, and how is the sea’s danger to humans — its wild untameability, part of the way we relate to it:
“It’s like the soundless television, the windbent tree, the campfire, in that it draws you away, divides your attention. At certain moments it’s like a memory you are trying to avoid. You stand there, hands dripping suds, looking for whatever was in your eye sought at first glance, but there’s nothing there. Just the chafing movement and the big blue stare coming right back at you.” (84)
Although the book raises big questions, it never loses its intimacy. The reader almost feels like these are personal, whispered revelations. We experience Winton’s sunburn, a rat hung just above his head, a young teen’s coming of age, a near drowning experience under a capsized boat, or a shared moment between a father and son. These are epiphanic moments in Winton’s own life that he turns into something the reader can experience and then recognise, as indeed I did. As Winton points out, for those of us to whom the beach has significance, and that may be nearly every Australian, our “coastal life” is where we lived hardest and with the most passion. Land’s Edge is a poignant and rich exploration of a series of moments against the grand and universal backdrop of the ocean. That it’s also a beautiful looking and feeling book with the quality of a fine gift, is a bonus.