Re­becca Giggs

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Here comes Tim Win­ton over the Mitchell Plateau. He’s been driv­ing for hours with the win­dows wound down. It’s 1993. Spi­ders and man­tises snarl in his hair. See Win­ton spit­ting green ants, pick­ing his teeth with a feather. Drag­on­flies slap the dash, he’s knuck­ling the wheel. Mid­way through Is­land Home and he’s go­ing too fast, he’s an­gry. The LandCruiser rip­ples with shred­ding in­sects, plants rib­boned. Win­ton in full swing now — gutsy, grit-lined and glis­ter­ing. It’s a thrill! Here he comes, down from the ran­ge­land, bar­relling in from the edge, swiped through coun­try.

So when the author swerves, as he does re­cur­rently in this book, into the shaded past tense of mem­oir and the el­e­vated out­look of so­cial com­men­tary, the tor­sion is not just star­tling — it’s strangely de­vi­tal­is­ing.

Is­land Home in­ter­sperses episodes from Win­ton’s life with pas­sages in which the author re­flects on how the Aus­tralian polity, our cul­tural and eco­nomic his­tory, and our var­ied lit­er­a­tures have tri­an­gu­lated the na­tion’s imag­i­na­tive con­nec­tion to land. There is a jour­nal­ing style to many of the chap­ters. Sec­tions in which Win­ton de­scribes his own rich en­coun­ters with place are told in present tense and head­lined with lo­ca­tions and dates (“Fre­man­tle 1999”, “Way­chinicup 1987”), as though he had recorded his ex­pe­ri­ences in a note­book at the time. Per­haps he did. But it gives the book a sort of Dop­pler ef­fect that re­ver­ber­ates through­out — things are loud­est when they’re with­draw­ing.

Part-way into an ac­count of threats fac­ing the Nin­ga­loo Reef, the dan­ger­ous im­me­di­acy of a blue-ringed oc­to­pus, coiled in a ti­dal pool, jan­gles the nerves. In Is­land Home what is most in­ter­est­ing is of­ten tak­ing place in the rear-view mir­ror; sig­nif­i­cances ex­pand in re­treat. If this per­sis­tence of vivid de­tail is a flaw, it’s a tes­ta­ment to Win­ton’s craft that the dryer ma­te­rial is only oc­ca­sion­ally over­stretched. For West Aus­tralians in par­tic­u­lar, Win­ton’s per­sonal rec­ol­lec­tions will prove deeply evoca­tive.

I’d for­got­ten about those trees with their fore­heads pressed to the ground by the wind ( Eu­ca­lyp­tus camal­d­u­len­sis). They came back like the sting of sun­burn at mid­night. But I hadn’t for­got­ten about the sock­eted lime­stone of Trigg Is­land, the snap and smell of the sea there. Finches that “spritz in salt­bush”. Goan­nas “in­ert as bush junk … flash their gums like drunks, ea­ger to brawl”. Al­bany: the slaugh­ter­ing fore­courts of the flensing fac­tory, the bow of cer­tain surf-breaks in the south. If Is­land Home is, at heart, a work of na­ture writ­ing, then Win­ton’s at­ten­tive­ness to ge­ol­ogy most no­tably puts him in a class with that still un­der-ap­pre­ci­ated rock­hound and es­say­ist, Mon­tana’s Rick Bass. Words such as “karst”, “gnamma”, “marl” and par­tic­u­larly “tor” re­cur in Is­land Home. No ac­ci­dent, it seems, that this sed­i­men­tary aes­thetic coun­ters the min­ing state’s ‘‘read’’ of land­scape as min­er­al­ogy, where such fea­tures mainly be­tray op­por­tu­ni­ties for plun­der.

Win­ton is an­gry in this book. You could feel that bub­bling along much ear­lier, un­der­neath his 2013 novel Eyrie, and es­pe­cially in how it ends. The de­struc­tion of the nat­u­ral world, the parochial­ism both of old-style ac­tivism and cor­po­rate ex­pe­di­ency; the sense of fi­nally be­ing above it all in mid­dle age, but gain­ing from that per­spec­tive only a bet­ter grip on the stric­tures of our mo­ment’s cri­sis.

Sub­ur­ban and ur­ban na­ture is, in Win­ton’s view, cor­rupted and cor­rupt­ing how­ever fre­net­i­cally we plas­ter over the cracks. He ac­counts for a state gov­ern­ment that pop­u­lates the Swan River with aquar­ium-reared prawns to quell the out­rage of recre­ational fish­er­men (that same river, so pol­luted as to kill off a quar­ter of all its dol­phins in 2009). Mo­ments of thren­ody for the many van­ished wa­ter­ways of Perth, driven un­der by de­vel­op­ment and overuse, are poignant. Dou­bly so when you con­nect th­ese lost swamps to the to­pog­ra­phy of some of Win­ton’s most loved short fic­tions, as in Aquifer from his 2005 col­lec­tion The Turn­ing, a story of se­crets sub­sumed in a marsh­land de­vel­oped for hous­ing. All this makes clear Win­ton’s great­est tal­ent: his keen vi­sion for what lies un­der­neath the land’s sur­face, the sto­ried his­tory a layer be­low.

The crown­ing mo­ment of Is­land Home comes in the Cape Range, a sonorous place in­hab­ited by plants crunched down to bon­sai by Is­land Home: A Land­scape Mem­oir By Tim Win­ton Hamish Hamil­ton, 240pp, $39.99 (HB) the wind. Climb­ing amid the crags, Win­ton stum­bles into a cave “the size of a child’s bed­room”. A mob of kan­ga­roos lies there, neck to knee and mo­tion­less. Dead, but per­fectly pre­served by the still, high air: a mar­su­pial grave­yard. This dis­cov­ery comes as a kind of open­ing into the gothic, a mode that has lent its at­mo­spher­ics to con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralian film per­haps even more so than re­cent lit­er­a­ture.

The un­can­ni­ness of those des­ic­cated kan­ga­roos speaks also to Win­ton’s “lim­i­nal ap­pre­hen­sions” of a pal­pa­ble but un­in­tel­li­gi­ble sa­cred­ness, ex­tant in cer­tain pock­ets of coun­try. Much of Is­land Home is given over to as­sert­ing the dy­namism and sub­tlety of in­dige­nous gal­ax­ies of mean­ing, threaded through Aus­tralian ecolo­gies. At times such as­ser­tions veer into a trou­bling mys­ti­cism, though Win­ton’s in­sis­tence on re­sist­ing Euro­pean lit­er­ary op­tics for Aus­tralian land­scape is laud­able. In­spi­ra­tions taken from (and rev­er­ence paid to) west Kim­ber­ley law­man David Bang­gal Mowal­jar­lai are ap­po­site, and give th­ese claims in the book more spine.

But we must talk about lan­guage, as this is Win­ton. Win­ton whose pas­sion for the ver­nac­u­lar, the ‘‘word on the street’’, was al­ways de­liv­ered with a bit of spit, a bit of venom aimed

Tim Win­ton’s per­sonal rec­ol­lec­tions will prove deeply evoca­tive for West Aus­tralians in par­tic­u­lar

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