Book review: Island Home: A Landscape Memoir by Tim Winton

In 1993, Tim Winton wrote Land's Edge: A Coastal Memoir, in which he explored the ways his identity had been shaped by an idyllic and also somewhat attritional youth spent largely on the fringes of the ocean in Western Australia.
Tim WintonTim Winton
Tim Winton

Island Home: A Landscape Memoir by Tim Winton | Picador, £12.99

A quarter of a century and a mantlepiece full of literary awards later, in Island Home: A Landscape Memoir, he sets out to do something similar, only this time it’s his relationship with Australia’s landscape rather than its coastline that’s the primary concern. Given the obvious similarities between the two books, it’s impossible to read the latter without comparing it with the former; trouble is, the comparison isn’t always a flattering one.

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While Island Home is certainly a memoir in the sense that Winton often tells us how Australia’s rugged landscapes wound their way into his sense of self (of his time spent in the south of the country, he says “these places, the mountains and rivers, headlands and beaches, ate into me, scoring me for life”), on the whole it feels as if there is less of his inner life here, less insight into what makes him tick. Whereas Land’s Edge often felt personal and intimate, at times Island Home begins to feel more like a collection of public pronouncements on the state of the Australian psyche in general, with passionate yet also arm’s-length digressions on the failure to take Aboriginal culture seriously, the shortcomings of the Australian literary establishment and the continuing abuse of the natural environment that Winton believes is rooted in a historic lack of appreciation for the country’s wild places that dates back to the earliest settlers.

Could it be that Winton simply associates himself more closely with the sea than with the land? There’s no shortage of beautifully crafted prose about the allure of the landscape here, but one of the most revealing insights comes when he reverts to discussing water. Of his youthful surfing exploits, he writes: “I loved the giddy speed, but what I needed most was the feeling of being monstered by a force beyond my control. This was how I came to understand nature and landscape.”

As an examination of the relationship between modern Australian society and the fragile ecosystems that support it, this book could hardly be bettered; to find out about the forces that shaped Tim Winton, though, read Land’s Edge.

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