Mythical and monstrous: land and sea in Australian fiction
Following a recent visit to Brisbane and its many bookshops, I found myself becoming obsessed by Australian literature. In each novel, short story, or memoir that I read, there was something that fascinated me. Slowly, I realised just what had me so hooked. It was the way these writers used their landscapes and seascapes, the way they played as important a role in their works as the plots and characters. I wanted to figure out why.
In his 1993 memoir Land’s Edge, Australian author Tim Winton says ‘because we have much more landscape and coastline than people, our shores and shallows are still rich in life, diversity, and strangeness.’ This is an apt quote for any discussion of land and sea in Australian literature, one that begins to explain why the authors of the country often use the natural world as their narrative drive.
Winton is an author that revels in the beauty and power of the Australian coast and bush. The opening section of his memoir closes with his thirty-three year old self looking out to sea and saying: ‘There is nowhere else I’d rather be, nothing else I would prefer to be doing. I am at the beach looking west with the continent behind me as the sun tracks down to the sea. I have my bearings.’ Nature frees him and brings him peace.
'Incoming' © Luke Peterson / flickr.com
That sense of freedom in the face of land and seascapes defines his fiction. In Breath (2008), we see two young men come of age because of the elements that surround them. When Pike and Loonie meet Sando, an ex-surfing champion, they are sucked into the world of the sea and everything changes for them. Previously ignored by their peers, their new found ability to master the waves brings them respect and attention; they use ‘the shores and shallows’ to improve their lives and become something more than is expected of them by the sleepy town they live in. If they hadn’t embraced the sea, the novel suggests, they would probably have grown into the same ignorant and disillusioned people that we see in the characters of their parents.
The way Pike and Loonie grow by interacting with the natural world is central to Winton’s ethos. This can even be seen in the city-based Eyrie, his latest work, in which the only moments of happiness the book’s troubled child enjoys come when he is in a boat, on a river, watching an osprey fly against the backdrop of a beautiful beach.
But I don’t think that all Australian authors see landscapes as such a freeing force.
In Evie Wyld’s writing, I saw the ‘diversity and strangeness’ that Winton speaks of take centre stage. Despite an obvious admiration for the land, her breathtaking debut After the Fire, A Still Small Voice shows the more sinister side of nature. Both land and sea lurk dangerously on almost every page, working as the perfect accompaniment to a story of loss, loneliness, and lives controlled by outside forces. The story is split into two parts, one focusing on Frank and the other on Leon. Frank moves from the city to the sea to escape a downward spiral, while Leon, decades earlier, is sent to Vietnam. Be it in the Vietnamese jungle or on the Australian coast, both face battles with the land that they almost lose.
It is Frank’s story that best sums up the power that Wyld grants to her landscapes, though. When he first moves to the Queensland coast, a young girl is missing, later to be found as just a jawbone in the desert. During the novel, he narrowly escapes a shark attack, struggles to find another lost girl in the rugged bush of Mullaburry, and, at a crucial point of the plot, finds himself dehydrated and lice-ridden as he struggles to cope with the elements. At all times, the savage land that surrounds him shadows the deepening depression he feels as he tries to overcome his past.
And the landscape is no less threatening in Wyld’s second novel, All the Birds, Singing. Ex-prostitute Jake Whyte finds herself a captive of a former punter, and it is Australia’s vast and barren landscape that keeps her from escaping. In the novel’s other strand, Jake is living alone on a farm somewhere on the British Isles, surrounded by flat fields and rolling hills. Something unknowable, something strange that hides in the landscape, is killing her sheep. There are suggestions of a mythical beast of some kind, which fits with Winton’s suggestion that the landscape has its ‘fair share of miracles, visitations, and wonders.’ The mysterious ending to All the Birds, Singing indicates that Wyld might just share his views.
'Simpson Desert' © Enjosmith / flickr.com
Similarly to Wyld, Hannah Kent shows that when Australian writers travel overseas in their work, they take their fascination with landscapes with them. Her much lauded debut, Burial Rites, has been praised for many reasons, but it is rare to find a review that doesn’t make reference to the powerful prose with which Kent paints her landscapes. Most impressive of all is her ability, like Wyld and Winton, to use them to represent the mood of the tale. In a moment of hope for one character, we read that ‘as he travelled over the north peninsula with its thin lip of ocean on the horizon, the clouds began to clear and the soft red light of the late June sun flooded the pass.’ Later, as an execution looms, ‘snow lays over the valley like linen, like a shroud waiting for the dead body of sky that slumped overhead.’
>>Read more: BURIAL RITES: A PHOTO ESSAY FROM ICELAND
Both passages are undoubtedly beautiful, but both also, as clearly as Winton’s osprey or Wyld’s jawbone in the desert, fill the reader’s mind with anticipation of what is to come. And Kent also writes her landscapes with an air of the mythical. At times, it feels as though this story based on real events is in fact an epic fantasy, and this is largely down to the way she conjures the Icelandic terrain.
Although I've only focused on three contemporary Australian authors, the fact that each of them pays as much attention to the landscape as they do to plot suggests a pattern. Maybe because they all grew up in country where ‘we have much more landscape and coastline than people,’ and maybe because their land and sea is so ‘rich in life, diversity, and strangeness,’ each of them views the natural world in a way that authors from other countries don’t. They see its power and its mythical quality, and they see how it can define lives.
Main image: 'Osprey' © Seokhee Kim / flickr.com