Book Review: Island Home by Tim Winton

“My island home is waiting for me”

– Neil Murray, ‘My Island Home’

I had a wonderful and humbling experience this week. I picked up a copy of Tim Winton’s new book Island Home – with very little expectation – and started it right away. I have always had a complicated relationship with Winton’s books; I have struggled to read many of them. The first one I came across was Lockie Leonard in the early years of high school and really, really disliked it. Many years later, I attempted Cloudstreet several times and never made it more than a chapter in. A few years ago I read Breath and felt like I had missed a higher meaning and then read Eyrie and didn’t connect to it at all. Winton has always mystified me a little; I have often regarding him as being aloof, cool and his writing pretentious. Island Home has taken a side ways step from fiction and into memoir. For Winton, it was confronting to come out from behind the curtain. For authors, it is easy to hide behind the characters and the story. He started writing Island Home as an exploration of the changes in his life and those of our beautiful country.

9781926428741 Island Home by Tim Winton

Last night mum and I attended an event at the Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne hosted by Readings and Tracee Hutchinson. It wasn’t the first time I have seen Tim Winton in person but it was the first Q & A event where I had attended and seen him animated and passionate. Having started the book only two days before, I was immediately swept up by Winton’s words. I love my country, in particular my hometown of Melbourne. I love the buzz of city life and the calming nature of the great outdoors; I spent much of my childhood outside, camping throughout the year and spending time at the beach every summer. I had suddenly found my place among the pages of Winton’s book. All of a sudden, he made sense. I was finally swept off my feet by his incredibly beautiful words and his powerful and evocative descriptions of this place we call home. Island Home pays homage to our country and to place, finding somewhere where we belong.

Beach Bums

His story begins in childhood as a young boy playing in the natural world, forming a connection to the land beneath his bare feet. He described children as being wild savages and as they grow older, they are tamed and broken in by the harness, bit and saddle. “There’s an intimacy with our surroundings we struggle to find later on in life. By the time we’re grown ups we’re too busy thinking.” Isn’t it ironic that “once we acquire the agency of adulthood we seem to spend a hell of a lot of time seeking out the gifts and instincts of our powerless childhood. Peculiar that we should have to learn to relax, strive to let go.”

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Winton maintains that he was saved as a young boy by the ocean. He discovered the south coast of Western Australia at a time when hormones were ready to explode and it kept him away from ‘fast cars and drugs’ and all other means that young people find to push the limits. He was humbled, awed and utterly dominated by the sea. “Half of a young man’s rebelliousness is the quest for a worthy force, something large to submit to…flying across a breaking swell, 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. By submitting. And by waiting.” It was the coastal town of Albany where he also began to see the damage humans were doing to the world he was learning to love. Albany was the last whaling port in Australia and he slowly became aware of the ‘greenies’, a group of people looking to change the local laws. Over time, he became involved behind the scenes and later became the face of one of their campaigns. Winton learned that you didn’t need a gun to defend your country. “Activists did not conjure collapsing fisheries, soil erosion, curdling wetlands and species extinctions from nothing. They just noticed. They paid attention to their surroundings.” Winton spends a great part of the book examining the importance of understanding the natural world. Large masses of our country have been written off as waste lands because the ecosystem is foreign to even those who have studied the land. We spend so much time cooped up in cars, planes and trains, learning the land from afar. “Sometimes it pays to be sceptical of the aerial view…Commuting over plains, deserts, woodlands and ranges at ten thousand metres, we flatter ourselves when we assume we know what it is we’re seeing.”

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It was not just the activists that Winton listened too. He has spent periods of time in the northern parts of Australia around the indigenous communities, listening and learning from them. “We’re barefoot but you are poor,” said the blackfella to the whitefella. Winton wonders why we are loathed to listen to a ‘guru’ in our own backyard. Instead we seek the answers abroad to those who are paid to tell us how to live our lives. Why don’t we listen to those who know us better than we know ourselves? The word of the indigenous elders is weighted more and more, helping to make changes in the highest levels of the Australian courts of law.

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I cannot express how much I love this book. As I grow older, I love Australia more and more. As Islanders, we have no borders and no frontiers and we intrinsically search for answers across the seas. We seek adventure and meaning and we yearn for a connection bigger than what we are. Every word Winton has written has penetrated my being; I haven’t found an expression of what it means to be Australian quite like Winton’s and it resonates in a way I didn’t think possible. I am so pleasantly surprised by his words and the explanations he gives. I love that I finally have a glimpse into what makes him tick, and the life that he writes into his books. Through travel, experience and maturity, perhaps I am ready to try those books again!

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Island Home is inspired by Neil Murray’s song ‘My Island Home’ and despite Winton’s insistence that he is in the ‘business of creating useless beauty,’ I think it is far more important than he gives himself credit for. It is a stunning read and one that I will be recommending for many, many years to come.

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My Island Home by Neil Murray

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bortd3V5aXQ

Australian World Heritage Sites

http://whc.unesco.org/en/statesparties/au

Protection of the Ningaloo Reef (won by Tim Winton and peers):

http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/news/2011/06/ningaloo-given-world-heritage-status/

 

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: Island Home by Tim Winton

  1. I almost wonder if this memoir was what he was trying to tell through all his novels, but creating the distance, which you mention, of fictitious characters made him seem cold and “foreign.” I wonder why you kept trying to read someone whose work you never finished? Is everyone else in Australia reading this guy? It kind of reminds me of David Foster Wallace in the United States. He’s so famous and revered, but I have never finished anything of his because I find it esoteric.

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    • I think you could be right – there is definitely an element of his character on every page of every book. I like the challenge of mastering language and writing that I find difficult to connect with; sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t. I think in this case I have definitely gained something. Winton is definitely everywhere; his books are studied in schools, his adult books read by book clubs and his works are adapted for TV and film. Winton’s books are esoteric in the sense that a non-Australian (an American perhaps) could feel alienated from the text because his writing and his books are uniquely Australian especially when it comes to landscapes and culture.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Bookkat,

    its been a while since I’ve commented and connected. I have had much going on in my life that has taken me away from books and literature. I concur with you about Wintons writing but I have pushed through and felt the reward of reading his work. Their is a quintessential Australianness about his writing but even more so he writes in the “Sandgroper” idiom and style. I find his writing a bit like Robert Drewe’s who grew up in West Australia. Both of them right with such attachment to the sea.

    In a recent interview for “The Australian” Magazine Winton spoke about his writing journey for this book and how he admired the naturalist, writer and documentary maker Vince Serventy and how Vince’s work inspired his love for Australia in his youth. He spoke of a book he received for a present in 1975 called Rolfs Walkabout which was about a journey undertaken in the outback by Rolf Harris and Vince. he brought up his unease about the book given Rolf’s abusive behaviour and how he returned the book to his shelf because to remove it would dishonour Vince’s work. He was able to rationalise his continued enjoyment of the book because it was more about the journey than about Rolf and even though Rolf stole the innocence of children and had tainted his own love for the book he could not allow Rolfs actions to destroy his respect and enjoyment of the Vince. To allow that would in effect be another victory for Rolf. Reading that was an incredible comfort to me. As a survivor of clergy abuse I felt Rolf had stolen part of my childhood because I too had received that same book as a Christmas present. Thanks to Tim that book is out of the cupboard and back on the shelf. I wrote to Tim to thank him for his courage in articulating that and the “Australian Magazine” published my letter last Saturday.

    Bookkat money is short for me and whilst I had thought about it I am now following your review going to buy this book. I too love this country deeply. It has soul, it speaks to me. I grew up in Melbourne and The Geelong / South Western region of Victoria has been my home since I was 20, for 31 years. To quote another great Australian writer, poet and singer from down this way, Shane Howard “The Spirit of this land survives” Tim Winton ensures that continued survival.

    Thank you for your honest and excellent review.

    Ciao for now.

    Patrick

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    • Hi Patrick,

      Welcome back – your absence was noticed. I wondered where you were; I hope all is well.

      You will be pleased to know that Winton mentions Serventy many times in Island Home. His admiration and respect for Serventy shines through in abundance. Rolf’s Walkabout (the show) was never about the man himself. He was a face that would attract viewers who would then be privy to Serventy’s ideas and commentaries on the wonders of our land. Like you, I admired Winton’s ability to look past the dark parts and remind himself of the reason he loved the show and the book; it was about so much more more than one man. I admire your courage in doing the same.

      Thank you for your kind words. I truly hope you find the joy in Winton’s words like I did. It is a really beautiful book.

      K

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  3. I’ve also had mixed success with Winton – some I’ve loved (Breathe, Cloudstreet) and others, not so much (Dirt Music). But this book sounds interesting – a ‘landscape memoir’? What a lovely, enticing label.

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    • I am happy to say this is one of my favourite books for the year so far. It is a beautiful read and it was the ‘landscape memoir’ that drew me in. There is one thing I never doubted about Winton was his love for Australia and it really shines through in this book. I hope that if you do read it, you enjoy it as much as I did!

      Liked by 1 person

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