Terrible Beauty

Review of Tim Winton, Island Home

The Spectator, June 11, 2016

It was only when I left Western Australia for university in England that I understood how vast and dangerous my homeland is. In freshers’ week, a group of us had spent a happy afternoon at a waterside pub. As we traced the pollen-dusty river back to Oxford, my friend Anish was overcome with joy (some might say cider) and capered into a field of long dry grass. Summer left me. I yelled for him to stop — stand still now, or he would die.

When my friends stopped laughing, they assured me that the only way to be harmed by English nature is if you put your face up to a consumptive badger and it sneezed. That this field, all fields, weren’t full of tiger snakes was a novel relief. And so I joined Anish, whooping in the grass.

Western Australia is one of the last frontiers. Roughly the size of western Europe, its population is less than Greater Manchester’s. In Britain, no matter how remote you feel, there’s always an air ambulance or a motorway. In WA, there can be 360 degrees of burning sky around you and 1,000 miles to help. That isolation is dangerous but appealing. It gets into your blood.

My compatriot Tim Winton had a similar realisation. He found the Swiss Alps claustrophobic, realising that he was ‘instinctively searching for distances that were unavailable’, unsettled by ‘a vista of almost unrelieved enclosure and domestication’. He ‘yearned’ for the ‘white-hot charge’ of the West Australian sun, the ‘wild opportunity’ of home.

Island Home is a paean to that landscape, an exquisite book that functions as literary memoir, nature writing, and environmentalist’s creed. The triumvirate is appropriate for Winton. ‘Landscape,’ he says, ‘has exerted a… force upon me that is every bit as geological as family.’ WA’s wild places form ‘the bedrock of my stories and novels and they draw me back, haunt me, feed me still’.

Through chapters structured around Winton’s travels into remote WA, Island Home takes us into his word-hoard and imagination. This is ‘austere, savage’ country, whose wide expanses provoke ‘melancholy’, wonder and fear. ‘In the desert the night sky sucks at you, star by star, galaxy by galaxy, until you begin to feel you could fall out into it at any moment.’ Death is woven through the landscape, obvious from ‘bleached bones’ but also hidden behind beauty. When Winton reaches into water for a shell, ‘the blue dots become livid, engorged’. He snatches his hand away from a blue-ringed octopus. ‘Pick that up and I’d be dead before I reached the vehicle.’

Winton takes us to the ‘tamped down, sodden’ southern forests and ‘sugar-white’ beaches curling up the coast, then inland to ‘the swoon and sweep of wild oats on the wind’, the ‘drone of bees in a trillion tree blossoms and wildflowers’. By boat and Land Cruisers that struggle up scree, Winton journeys into the tropics, where a tidal river flows out ‘in a headlong stampede, flaying the trees that flashed olive green’. He drives blindly through a ‘wall of grass and vines’ in wet season, where

grasshoppers, moths, dragonflies and birds peel upward… in vivid rushes… Everything around us fizzes and swirls psychedelic on the wing. The country feels too warm, too thick, too wild and rich to be real.

Winton’s writing — lyrical yet visceral — seems formed by WA’s variety, its sparkling rivers and red deserts, as much as its colloquialism. His jam-in-the-mouth prose that rips and sings is, he says, ‘unapologetically local’. Like Seamus Heaney’s and Ted Hughes’s, Winton’s language feels a product of the land, and the natural way to celebrate it. Corollary to this is his anger at the appropriative interests that see his hallowed places — and all nature — as a space only to mine, burn and clear. He calls us to recognise the land that shapes us, and to treat it more as aboriginal people do:  with knowledge, reverence and respect.

I am proudly British and Australian. I love England’s primroses and waterfalls. But I miss a land of harsh red beauty, where every step has the thrill of death in it. Island Home brought me back. Read it — if for nothing else, to explore WA without getting killed.

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