What really makes Winton stand out amongst his peers is the diamond-tipped precision of his descriptive writing, and in Land’s Edge we get a gloriously concentrated dose of it.
WHEN it was first published in Australia in 1993, this memoir from author and outdoorsman Tim Winton – more a random collection of brief, vivid memories than a coherent autobiography – came packaged as a large coffee table book, complete with glossy photographs by Trish Ainslie and Roger Garwood. Now though, finally released in the UK by Picador, it has been stripped of all its fancy bells and whistles and reduced to a slim, large print volume of just 113 pages. Apart from a few tasteful woodcut-style illustrations dividing up the chapters, there’s no embellishment at all. This time, the words are left to speak for themselves.
Even at a little over 10p a page, however, Winton’s prose is still excellent value for money. In the two decades since Land’s Edge was first published, he has gone on to become one of Australia’s most acclaimed writers, making the Booker shortlist with The Riders in 1995 and then again in 2002 with Dirt Music and picking up a whole host of honours in his home country. In his most recent novel, Breath, Winton even brought the sport of surfing to the attention of the literary establishment, causing Philip Hensher to exclaim in the Spectator: “I will never do anything of the sort [riding a 30ft wave], but now I don’t have to in order to understand how it feels.”
As observed by Hensher, what really makes Winton stand out amongst his peers is the diamond-tipped precision of his descriptive writing, and in Land’s Edge we get a gloriously concentrated dose of it. In his fiction, like all novelists, Winton has to wrestle with the complexities of character and plot, but in Land’s Edge he is almost entirely freed from these restrictions and so can focus his linguistic firepower on bringing a series of episodes from his enviable coastal existence searingly to life.
Winton grew up in the Perth suburb of Karrinyup in the 1960s, in a house with “a facade knocked out by some bored government architect, a Hills Hoist in the back yard and picket fences between us and the neighbours”, but all his formative experiences – or, at least, the ones he chooses to talk about here – seem to be from family holidays at a shack at the mouth of the Greenough River near Geraldton, a port town about 250 miles to the north.
This shack, says Winton, perched precariously between endless desert on one side and endless ocean on the other, was the “prime cause of my obsession with the coastal life” but also, he believes, the source of his desire to become a writer.
A simple, functional dwelling belonging to his great-aunt and uncle, nevertheless the shack at Greenough had its own little library – “four walls of books, a world unto itself.” In the afternoons, when the temperature gradient would cause the wind to start howling in off the Indian Ocean, blowing stinging sand along with it, Winton would retreat from the brilliant light of the beach to this dark sanctuary and read Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson and books by Robert Louis Stevenson.
“These were the first books that offered me some of the real world I knew,” he writes, “then carried me off completely to somewhere that didn’t exist at all.” As a result of these long summer days, neatly divided by the elements into outdoor mornings and indoor afternoons, Winton came to love both, to the extent that he realised “I would never be content with only one world or the other.”
After this brief indoors interlude, the rest of Land’s Edge consists of visceral accounts of a range of outdoors experiences – every page is a riot of colours, sounds and smells – but, of course, it’s thanks to Winton’s early immersion in the library at Greenough that he’s able to recount them so vividly.
There’s a passage about diving with eight-metre whale sharks off Ningaloo Reef that fairly takes the breath away with the clarity of the mind-pictures it paints; a little fragment of a childhood memory about becoming lost in sand dunes during a storm that evokes the sound of hissing sand so powerfully that you can almost hear it; and some descriptions of the underwater world of the diver that are more detailed than any photograph, mixing sounds and visuals to cinematic effect.
Winton describes other sensations too – sensations that will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in or around the sea, yet ones which aren’t easily classifiable as sight, sound, touch, taste or smell. In an account of a freediving expedition, he refers to “that open ocean shiver” – the moment of apprehension that always precedes any act of committing yourself to deep water. Later, he describes the feeling of looking up from the washing up, glancing out of the window towards the sea and having his mind go “suddenly, unpleasantly blank” because whatever he had been thinking a moment before simply paled into insignificance in comparison with “the sight of that restless expanse out there”.
There’s no hint in this book that Winton is a religious man, but he concludes with something akin to a prayer: “I am small and I know it,” he writes, “and am grateful to have it spelled out to me week after week by the shifting sea and the endless land at my back.”
Land’s Edge: A Coastal Memoir
by Tim Winton
Picador, 113pp, £12.99
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Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 17 C
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