The inclusion of memoir in an experienced author’s oeuvre is interesting although not uncommon. Memoir often reveals much about a writer: their childhood, their memories, their motivations to pursue their chosen career pathway. Interestingly, in the case of two prominent Australian authors, the memoir allows for a passionate investigation of landscape and how it permeates through their lives and their writing. In this article, I explore two examples of writers who have been inspired — openly and explicitly — by the beach: Tim Winton and Robert Drewe. Both are from Western Australia and both are fascinated and influenced by the coastal landscape. This is also apparent in their fiction in which characters use the beach as a touchstone or comfort. Winton and Drewe have written five memoirs between them, ranging from 1993 to 2016. Both authors make clear that these works are inspired by their relationship with landscape — particularly coastal landscapes on the western coast of Australia. By investigating these two authors’ works of memoir — both bound by their ongoing appreciation and inspiration of Australian landscape — this article examines how these coastal memoirs reveal how landscape can represent notions of national identity. The Australian coast acts as both a space of awe and solace in Winton’s work while being inevitably intertwined in ‘memories and murder’ in the memoirs of Drewe.
Keywords: Memoir — creative writing — life writing — Robert Drewe — Tim Winton — Australian beaches — coast — landscape
One of the first images associated with Australia is Uluru, the enormous monolith in the outback that dwarfs everything around it. However, most of the Australian population are actually coast dwellers, densely concentrated along the eastern coast and some parts of the western coast. Therefore, although the outback is regularly considered a marker of Australian identity, many Australians are more familiar with a coastal landscape. And while perhaps lacking the singular, striking image of Uluru, Australian beaches do regularly feature in iconic tourism imagery. Beaches then, especially those located near coastal towns (as opposed to those that are isolated or less accessible), can be considered part of the everyday fabric of the community.
Tim Winton and Robert Drewe are arguably the two authors currently most associated with the beach landscape in Australia, and both have interrogated the simplistic or mythic image of the beach that we frequently see in our cultural products. Both have experienced long and successful careers: Winton is the more critically decorated with multiple nominations for the Man Booker Prize, and has won Australia’s Miles Franklin prize four times; yet Robert Drewe’s extensive experience as an editor and journalist complement his career, and his novel The drowner (1996) won every Australian state’s Premier’s Literary Award. Although their writing is different in style, they can be considered contemporaries as their careers have overlapped, and they do share a clear resonance with the coastal landscape (particularly the West Australian coast). Both have fiction works that are coastally focused, with surfers or swimmers at their centre (consider, for instance, Winton’s Breath from 2008 or Drewe’s short story collection The bodysurfers from 1983). And they have also been open about their childhoods on the beach and the influence that has had on their writing. Drewe suggests, in a piece written for the National Library of Australia Magazine, ‘To me, and I’m sure I’m not alone, that mysterious, sensuous zone where the bush meets the sea is the real Australia’ (2015: 9).
Both Winton and Drewe have also written memoirs or nonfiction work, and both authors feature beach landscapes in these books. Tim Winton has published three nonfiction works: Land’s edge (1993); Island home (2015); and The boy behind the curtain (2016). It is worth noting that The boy behind the curtain is a collection of previously published and unpublished pieces. While it features the coast — as the coast forms such an integral part of Winton’s life — it is the most distinctly autobiographical in tone and also the least focused on landscape alone. Robert Drewe has published two memoirs: The shark net: Memories and murder (2000) and Montebello: A memoir (2012). Unlike Winton’s works, both of these novels use a particular incident as a throughline in the narrative. The shark net focuses on a spate of murders in Perth during Drewe’s childhood, and Montebello follows Drewe’s visit to the Montebello islands — the location of nuclear tests by the British during the 1950s. Regardless of these narrative framings, the beach and the coastline are continually present throughout the text, and frequently form a key part of milestone moments in Drewe’s life.
Despite the popularity of writings by Robert Drewe and Tim Winton, the beach landscape in Australia has not received as much attention as the bush or outback. As Leone Huntsman noted, ‘Certainly intellectuals have failed to apply to the beach the attention they have lavished on the bush and, more recently, the desert’ (2001: 218). While there has been some interrogation into the Australian beach since Leone Huntsman’s work in 2001, it is difficult to find the breadth of academic consideration that is available for other Australian landscapes. It is also a point of language: Huntsman highlights that the very word ‘landscape’ does not comfortably allow for the sand and water that are integral to defining the coast (2001: 166). And yet creatives have been engaging with and being inspired by the beach landscape for some time. It is possible to see Robert Drewe’s The bodysurfers (1983) as a key breakthrough in bringing beach texts to the foreground in popular culture, in a way that the cult classic Puberty blues (Carey & Lette 1979) — written by women authors and detailing a confronting female-driven story — seemed not to do.
It is important to note that the two key authors discussed in this article are white, male, and from Western Australia. The lack of minority voices in Australian beach writing has been recognised before (Ellison 2011; 2014), and as such, I emphasise that this examination of two authors is not intended to be representative of all beach writing. And yet, it is impossible to ignore that Drewe and Winton are Australia’s best known writers about the beach. Perhaps this is unsurprising: after all, Australia’s national myths are so often embedded in masculine figures (the Anzac soldier; the bushranger; the lifesaver), and the beach landscape is no exception. The beach, in many ways like the mysterious interior, is a location of fear (Ellison 2017). As Turner suggests, the Australian landscape is ‘both a challenger and a leveller … the real heroism lies in surviving it’ (1993: 36–37). And Winton and Drewe have both written fiction in which characters are trying to survive in their coastal landscapes.
While not the only voices that engage with the Australian coastal landscape, the popularity and longevity of Tim Winton and Robert Drewe have allowed for the publication of five nonfiction, memoir texts between them: three for Winton and two for Drewe. Each of these evokes a location-driven, coastal imaginary as an influential factor in their personal and professional lives. While there has been some examination of both Winton and Drewe’s work — although notably, much more has been written about Winton (see, for instance, McCredden and O’Reilly’s 2014 edited collection as one example) — there has been comparatively little focus thus far on their memoirs.
This article attempts to identify how the coastal landscape functions in Tim Winton’s and Robert Drewe’s memoir writing. By analysing five nonfiction books they have published, this article suggests that the iconic Australian coastal landscape functions as a touchstone for these two authors and plays a significant role in their writing process. I argue that, although their style, format, and voices are distinct in these works, there is an underlying tension in their representation of the coastal landscape that emerges in both of their writings. It is clear that Tim Winton and Robert Drewe are in awe of, and respectful of, the beach and the coast. In Winton’s works, this awe is almost reverential or spiritual — an ‘at-oneness’ (Bennett 2007) that is inspired by the vastness of the ocean, the power of the natural environment, and the somewhat inexplicable peace that it brings him when he surfs. For Drewe, the beach is a marker of death and his awe (which is distinctly not spiritual) seems to be of the suddenness with which the ocean can challenge his perspective on life.
On memoir and nonfiction
To position the examination of these works, it is important first to address a few key terms. In this article, I am using the term memoir, as opposed to autobiography. As defined by Donna Lee Brien, memoir ‘usually explores only one theme, period or aspect of a life under consideration’ (2004: 84). This definition suits the five texts chosen for this investigation; although I acknowledge there is significant slippage both in academia and the publishing industry with the usage of terms like autobiography, memoir, and life writing (see, for instance, Nancy K Miller’s extensive works [1997, 2007], and Smith and Watson ). To support the use of the term memoir in this article, four of the books discussed in this article have been self-classified as memoir; and three of the five explicitly note the connection of the work to coastal landscapes.
Another term that is useful to this discussion — and used within this article — is nonfiction. A type of catch-all term, this categorisation is regularly ascribed to the books in question by their publishers and booksellers. It is worth noting that the relationship these works have to truth — an integral element of auto/biography studies – is not particularly relevant to this discussion. This slippage between what might be called real and what is perhaps exaggerated or somewhat fictionalised is certainly apparent when reading Drewe’s work, especially The shark net. Drewe’s memoirs also correlate and identify experiences, events, and concepts that have clearly crossed from his own experience into that of his fiction (see, for instance, the short stories ‘Sweetlip’ and ‘Stingray’ from The bodysurfers that appear to be drawn directly from experiences recounted in his memoirs). But, for this investigation, I am focusing on the role of landscape and how it shapes these authors’ experiences as a way of identifying how they contribute to a broader understanding of Australian culture.
Brien suggests memoir can often be a vehicle for using ‘personal narrative as framework for much larger cultural history’ (2004: 94). David McCooey believes this is because memoir can merge the personal and the public. He writes, ‘In Australia, the crises found in recent autobiographies reflect wider, public crises’ (2009: 332). While Drewe and Winton’s works are personal, it certainly feels as though they can be posited to speak to ideas and issues that are part of our cultural identity. Their personal stories, captured in these memoirs, highlight their preoccupation with the coastal landscape; and also reveal the ways in which Australian culture is intrinsically linked to landscape.
Representations of landscape
Landscape has long captured a type of mythic representation of Australian values. Russel Ward (1958) in The Australian legend suggested the outback spirit could be an indicator of Australian identity. Even when revisiting this work in 1978, he continued to suggest that ‘if we seek the source of the national self-image we must look, almost exclusively, to the bush’ (1978: 171). This idea of ‘bush values’ was also identified by Bill Bennett (2006: 16), who suggests the Australian Anzac myth and the bush are inherently connected. There is a tradition of the Australian bush landscape being a marker of Australian values; Graeme Turner notes, ‘The preoccupation with the land and its communities is so strong in Australian narrative as to be remarkable’ (1993: 32). And yet it is of course less representative of how Australian society currently functions, where the majority of Australians are coast dwellers. Nick Osbaldiston, in his sociological investigation of Australian coastlines, notes the distinctness of this continent’s edge thanks to the rural, regional, and metropolitan locations around the country and the way they have ‘developed in their own distinctive patterns culturally that differ from other [international] coasts’ (2017: 4). Where bush values in the past have perhaps stood as markers of ‘courage, patriotism … and the mateship of Australian men in adversity’ (Bennett 2006: 16), beach landscapes instead conjure up ideas of hedonism and pleasure. As Ann Game (1990: 115) notes, the beach is a space that is considered separate from work and therefore a place linked to relaxation. This, of course, has allowed for the dismissal of the beach as a landscape of importance in Australian national identity (Huntsman 2001: 217).
I have previously examined how beaches are represented in Australian fiction, suggesting that fiction has the ability to capture the complexities of the space in a way that can be quite nuanced and complex (Ellison 2017). The beach is, after all, a space that on one hand is iconic — a type of short hand for the Australian myth of egalitarianism (Ellison 2014) — but on the other, it remains a place familiar, individual, and inherently ordinary for many Australians who live on or near the coastline. This tension seems to emerge from the very functionality of the landscape itself: it is considered a place where visitors understand the opportunity for leisure and simultaneously the threat of drowning or being stung by something in the water. Danger is ever-present in the Australian landscape, and the ‘monstrous landscape’ functions as a trope in the gothic genre (perhaps most famously in Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock ). However, regardless of the inherent fear that lurks beneath many Australian landscapes, there remains something startling about the threat of danger while on a beautiful, idyllic beach.
Before delving into close textual analysis, this section provides a brief context for Robert Drewe’s and Tim Winton’s careers and works. Robert Drewe’s career perhaps slightly pre-dated Winton’s, starting with The savage crows in 1976, and the success of his collection of short stories, The bodysurfers in 1983. He has continued to publish long- and short-form works, both fiction and nonfiction, and his most recent novel, Whipbird, was released in 2017. Drewe has been open about his focus on and love of the Australian beach, suggesting it is where he feels most Australian. He grew up in Perth but has lived in many areas of Australia, which means his works span geographical locations, the majority of which are real (for example, Bondi Beach and Hayman Island). Not all of his works include beaches, of course. But many do, and it is clear in the type of imagery of his book covers and the inclusion of title stories in a collection (such as, ‘The bodysurfers’ and ‘The rip’) that this iconic landscape is a significant component of his identity as an author.
Tim Winton is unquestionably one of Australia’s most successful authors and, in the contemporary climate, arguably more widely known than Drewe. He has won a number of literary awards, and continues to attract great commercial and critical success for many of his works. Cloudstreet (1991) in particular generated significant attention, and was adapted into a stage play. An early collection of short stories, The turning (2005), was adapted into a film composed of individual vignettes, and a film adaptation of Breath (2008) was released in 2018 (Convery 2017). There is something about Winton’s writing that seems to appeal to the Australian (and also international) audience, and Winton appears to have become representative, or emblematic, of Australian literary culture. Regardless of his widespread success, Winton is not without his critics. As Helff notes:
As a programmatic writer and poster boy of Australian literature, Tim Winton is both loved and hated by his critics. Much of the expressed mutual scepticism is related to his appealing style and the vivid utilisation of popular, often Australian iconic patterns such as the beach, the surf, the surfer, the whale and the sacred. (2014: 223)
Winton is explicitly and obviously driven by the coast. All of his works, with perhaps the exception of Cloudstreet, have strong links with the ocean and the coast. Dirt music, Breath, and The turning, for instance, are all texts that feature coastal living. Interestingly, many of these texts feature beaches that are clearly inspired by the West Australian coastline and yet are presented as fictional locations in the works.
When reading the fiction of Drewe and Winton, it is apparent that both of these authors, like many Australians, feel the beach is an integral part of their (and our) Australian identity. Winton summarised this in Land’s edge, suggesting Australians can be categorised thus: ‘We are not sea people by way of being great mariners, but more a coastal people, content on the edge of things’ (1993: 34).
‘Memories and murder’: Drewe’s memoirs
Robert Drewe’s works are categorised by their titles as memoir, and this speaks to Brien’s definition that memoir is more concerned with writing about ‘an aspect of life under consideration’ (2004: 84) rather than capturing a chronological account of his life. Robert Drewe has written two memoirs as of time of publication: The shark net: Memories and murder (2000) and Montebello: A memoir (2012).
Some themes are shared by the two works — a fixation with death; a frankness about misjudgment and mistakes; and a preoccupation with the coastal landscape. However, there are some differences too. The Shark Net reads in many ways like a traditional autobiography, detailing key moments in Drewe’s life: first as a young boy in Perth, then a young reporter, and also a young father. While non-judgmental of his past self, Drewe is clearly aware of the naiveté of some of his decisions — perhaps most notably in the innocence he portrays when his girlfriend falls pregnant at 19 years of age:
I’d known the risk involved, yet at a certain point I’d let fate take over. Why had I decided to defy the odds and my own intelligence and be swept away? I was young and naïve but I knew better than that. (2000: 197).
The thread of The shark net, however, is the string of murders that haunted Perth during this period. Drewe was the court reporter, and the testimony of convicted serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke greatly influenced him. Interestingly, Drewe’s naiveté is augmented or perhaps complicated by what appears to be the same naiveté of Perth during this period in the 1980s. Cooke entered some of the victims’ houses easily, as the doors were left unlocked. This trusting nature of the city starts to unravel as the novel progresses, with people becoming more suspicious of strangers and less forgiving of mistakes.
Drewe’s tone shifts throughout the novel; the childhood optimism in the face of adversity or absurdity slips away as the weight of adulthood and injustice permeates his life. This component of the narrative is where the book breaks from traditional autobiographical techniques, as Drewe uses third person to narrate key moments in Cooke’s story. In this way, the reader is given scenes which serve as a way of providing some insight into the maligned, awkward killer. The voice of Cooke emerges even in these short pieces:
His people were from the country once upon a time. The York district. Three York generations before his old man, before Snowy, and all of them dust-and-stubble farmers, bad drunks, and wife beaters, Greatgrandma Cooke dying suspiciously back then but not enough evidence to put Pa on a charge. (2000: 182)
In many ways, The shark net provides a snapshot of Perth within a specific period. The explicit linking by Drewe of his personal narrative, Cooke’s narrative, and the community narrative helps to undermine what McCooey suggests was ‘the myth that Perth, prior to Cooke’s serial killings, was living in an “innocent age”’ (2009: 333).
Similarly, Montebello challenges an innocence of an earlier time, although this time solely through Drewe’s perspective. Montebello’s framing narrative is focused on Drewe’s trip to the Montebello islands and the widespread yet almost invisible impact of the British nuclear tests that occurred there in the 1950s. The fragility of life — both for animals and humans — emerges in much of this telling. For instance, Drewe highlights how the turtle populations in the area were devastated as a result of the tests. He also details how the Australian servicemen stationed during this period were given no protective clothing and instead wore sandals and often no shirts throughout the entire area; unsurprisingly many of these men died prematurely of radiation cancer. Drewe suggests the national government was aware of and therefore complicit in the impact of this event. Where Winton’s work continues to be a call to arms for environmentalism, Drewe’s story is positioned through his own lens — the greater implications of the incident are clear to the reader but not discussed in such overt tones.
Montebello, like The shark net before it, is very frank and open in its narrative style. Drewe’s fiction and nonfiction are categorised by his journalistic attention to detail and also by the sparseness of his writing. Both works reveal that Drewe has an ongoing concern with death, and this is carried throughout the two books. It also emerges in much of his fiction, both long and short form. A scene in Montebello sees Drewe reflect on his own close interaction with drowning:
For someone who grew up on the West Australian coast and has always loved the sea and the beach, I’ve come to associate it with death as much as pleasure. I know where this contradictory view comes from. As a teenager I was body-surfing on a reef off Cottesloe beach with four friends when one of them drowned. (2012: 114)
This initial event clearly had an impact on the young Drewe, one that remained in many ways subconscious:
A decade after that November afternoon on the Slimy, however, as I left journalism in my late twenties to write fiction, the image of a person drowning, or in danger in the sea, began appearing in my novels and stories. Many more years passed before I realised how extensively drowning had become both theme and metaphor in my writing. (2012: 117)
After years of this story emerging in his fiction writing, Drewe details how he wrote about the specific incident of Richard’s drowning in The shark net. Bruce Bennett suggests that Drewe’s work captures the ‘simultaneous lure and threat of oceans and beaches’ (2007: 32), and it is clear that the beach is complex for Drewe himself and for many of his fictional characters as well.
The moment of drowning mentioned above, like many moments in Drewe’s life as identified in these works, are specifically located and centred on the coast. These can be comical moments — for instance, Drewe describes in The shark net how Rottnest Island was a place he associated with sex throughout his youth. While not ignoring the irony of the prior penal colony and concentration camp becoming a location considered ‘relaxed and seductive’ (2000: 114), Drewe captures the youthful naiveté of his first trip to Rottnest, the place ‘where West Australians lost their virginity’ (2000: 114). Similarly, in Montebello, Drewe returns to Rottnest and its heady sensuality, although perhaps this time with a slightly more cynical view: ‘Of course, most of Rottnest’s magic lies in nostalgia for youth. Much of its charm is illusory, like the way the island, viewed from the mainland, often appears as a mirage’ (2012: 44). In this work, however, Drewe explicitly links this location and his experience of writing ‘The manageress and the mirage’, one of his stories in The bodysurfers (1983). Drewe is frank about the less than polished approach to the editing and publishing process of that collection of short stories (2015: 45) and also its success, including the way it:
flew in the face of publishing lore that short stories didn’t sell and helped break a few other shibboleths as well, including the accepted wisdom of the bush’s overwhelming primacy over the coast as an Australian literary backdrop. (2015: 45)
Drewe’s writing — both fiction and nonfiction — has portrayed the beach and the coastlines of Australia as integral components of the Australian literary sphere. Some locations and moments in his life appear powerful and thus feature in both The shark net and Montebello — tellingly, many of these happen by the beach. It is obvious that the coast has played a significant role in Drewe’s life and therefore in his writing practice. It represents a nostalgia for his more innocent, naïve youth, but also a place of darkness and death. Drewe’s two memoirs showcase a layering of reflexivity about his life, his writing, and death, and this illustrates how The shark net and Montebello function, helmed by a sometimes unfocused yet always authentic voice.
The ‘landscape memoir’: Winton’s writings
In comparison, Winton’s first two memoirs feel more carefully constructed than Drewe’s work. Where Drewe’s memoirs meandered, not unlike the way memory regularly weaves and jumps, Winton’s first two works feel considered. Land’s edge was first published in 1993 and Island home in 2016, and both could be considered thematic rather than linear narratives. Each is written as a complete work; this is in contrast to his latest book, The boy behind the curtain (2016), which is written in an essay structure. Where Land’s edge was very coastal focused, Island home is less discriminating in its discussion of landscape, and captures the extreme variations that the Australian continent can produce. The boy behind the curtain does not focus primarily on landscape in the same way; however, oceanic imagery is prevalent throughout as Winton’s love for surfing continues to permeate his writing.
Considering the difference in tone between the first two works and the more recent one, it is worth examining them in isolation to begin with. Each of these earlier books tends to use a retold memory as a framing device. For instance, in the hardcover version of Land’s edge, the chapters are all introduced with a memory written in different coloured ink before shifting tone into a reflection on a topic. The first chapter opens with a memory of Winton and his family reaching the beach for the first time after living overseas for an extended time. It is immediately clear that the coastline, and specifically the beach, holds such significance as a place of belonging for Winton. His almost spiritual encounter concludes the section:
Call it jet lag, cabin fever, but I am almost in tears. There is nowhere else I’d rather be, nothing else I’d rather 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. (1993: 3)
While Winton’s voice is personal and authentic throughout, it is certainly not as revealing of inner worries and prior mistakes as is Drewe’s work. A later chapter in Land’s edge, for instance, is concerned with understanding the bridge between the suburban and the coastal in Australia, and the way that the beach can loom so large in the consciousness of our nation despite so many of us living in suburbs without direct views of the ocean. Winton is unafraid of drawing overt, larger connections that may resonate with society as a whole, rather than remaining solely in his personal narrative.
Where Land’s edge is celebratory, and at times reverent, of the beach and the ocean, Island home is more explicitly conservationist. Winton’s association with environmental groups is well known despite his reluctance to cultivate a public persona, and he is a vocal advocate in Western Australia. This is immediately obvious throughout Island home. For instance, in the chapter ‘The corner of the eye’, Winton details historical context for West Australia’s ‘grand tradition’ of land grabs and his slow fall into environmental politics. He describes how, ‘In the end I felt I couldn’t avoid being involved in environmental matters. The natural world has always been my prime inspiration. I felt indebted’ (2016: 106). Island home is also more inclusive of other Western Australian landscapes — most notably, the large areas of desert towards the interior. Winton’s prose has been described as ‘muscular and magnetic and sometimes just a bit too self-delighting’ (Craven 2016, para 1), and yet his inherent spirituality and the way that the Australian landscape resonates with him in such a powerful way, provides a welcome tension to what could otherwise read as a conquering, male style. Bruce Bennett suggested in 2007 that Winton’s fictional work is not ‘primarily political’. While it would be difficult to detangle his nonfiction work from his political concerns, Winton’s fictional representations of the coast, Bennett argues, can be characterised by ‘his sense of at-oneness in these environments and his recognition of their numinous possibilities’ (2007: 39–40).
This ‘at-oneness’ is more openly discussed as spiritual in The boy behind the curtain when Winton accounts for his childhood in an evangelical church, which provided the foundations of much of his engagement with words and metaphor. Winton provides more traditional autobiographical material in this book that showcase insight into the author and his writing practice. Yet it is not removed from that environmental call to arms as evidenced in the earlier works. As Peter Craven suggests in his review:
He invests his environmental involvements with such a sense of drama and such an evocative sense of the beauties and places at risk that he will bring out the dormant greenie in anyone, because he makes his commitments so patently a blow for life and analogous to the truth of art. (2016, para 9)
Throughout this most recent publication, Winton is very open about the inspiration he takes from the coast and how it influences him as a writer — not just through its content, but also its rhythm and the way he interacts with it. For instance, in the chapter ‘Chasing giants’, Winton describes hearing the humpback whales throughout the night and day: ‘It’s hard to stay focused on work during whale season when you hear them all day, see their pillars of vapour from the kitchen window. As a distraction they’re worse than the fridge’ (2016: 189).
Of course, writing about the environment is not a new concept. Nature writing has a long history, and ecocriticism (Buell 1995) continues to gather momentum as we see growing cultural interest in the way the environment is impacting our world. When combining these ideas with life writing, Peter Perreten suggests eco-autobiography as a term that bridges life writing and nature writing; borrowing from both autobiography and ecocriticism studies. In particular, the focus is on ‘the intimate relationship between people and the natural setting’ (Perreten 2003: 5). Melanie Pryor suggests Tim Winton’s Island home is an example of eco-autobiography, considering the way:
interaction with the natural world indelibly shapes the writer’s youth and later years. In describing Australian scrub, beaches, rivers, and deserts, the author simultaneously describes himself: in giving voice to the landscape’s mood, memory, solitude, and wildness, place becomes geographic, created and remembered, formed and forming. (Pryor 2017: 391)
While it is perhaps not as easy to suggest The boy behind the curtain is an eco-autobiography, it is certainly clear that the beach landscape resonates with readers. One reviewer, Ashley Hay, noted: ‘Some of the strongest pieces come from around the littoral zone — the shoreline; the waves just beyond. This is Winton’s habitat, his particular ecological niche, both literally and metaphorically’ (Hay 2016, para 13).
Conclusion: the coastal memoir
Both authors are unabashed in their love for, and inspiration from, the coast, the beach, and the ocean. Drewe’s attention to detail makes both The shark net and Montebello feel very authentic, and his openness with his own failings provide a realism that permeates through both books. Perhaps because of the darker threads that connect both works, the murders and loss of innocence in The shark net and the preoccupation with death in Montebello, mean that the past is not portrayed as glossy or dripping in nostalgia. While there are moments where Drewe longs for his younger years, they are often offset by the inclusion of an anecdote that reminds the reader of an inherent darkness within humanity and the Australian landscape. Interestingly, Drewe mentions in The shark net a night where he watched Stanley Kramer’s film adaptation (1959) of Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957). The novel details the last days of humanity after nuclear fallout, including a poignant final scene with one of the protagonists, Moira, overlooking the ocean as she dies. This liminal moment, in which the uncaring, natural environment continues on without interference from the recklessness of humanity, resonates with Drewe’s writing. It also provides an interesting insight into Drewe’s fascination with the Montebello region, a location of nuclear testing. Bruce Bennett (2007: 32) suggests Drewe’s work captures both the ‘lure and threat’ of the beach, and this tension is rarely absent in his evocations of the coastal landscape. The beach seems to demand respect for and/or from Drewe because of its uncaring, eternal motion that can bring both joy and fear simultaneously, and randomly.
In comparison, Winton’s writing of the beach feels more steeped in reverence. Much of his work is reflective in tone, almost questioning; perhaps as a way of trying to understand why the coast and the landscape seem to play such a powerful role in inspiring not only his work but also the nation more widely. His use of memories as a framing device in Land’s edge and Island home, short segments told in present tense, surprisingly add distance and perhaps de-personalise his retelling of events. Yet this tone changes dramatically in The boy behind the curtain, which feels a much more intimate reflection on key moments in Winton’s life.
It is worth stressing that Winton is clearly writing with a passion for environmental conservation. While not always explicitly marked as such, much of his work is framed around a disdain for the actions of recent councils and governments in infiltrating and encroaching on the natural landscape:
The physical facts of life — that is, the fragile and finite elements of the natural world — underpin all our endeavours. Few on the right are completely unchanged by this development in thinking, even if green activism has replaced organized labour as the political enemy. (2015: 110)
He treats the environment as something sacred, to be revered. His relationship with the land — notably both coastal and interior — appears spiritual, if not religious in the traditional sense. This is most obvious when he is physically present in the space — surfing, swimming, or diving — and yet he never views the beach as a space to be conquered; instead he champions for it to be treated respectfully and carefully. In Island home, Winton suggests the land, for many Australians, has become familial — far removed from the idea of a ‘challenging’ landscape that we must ‘survive’ (Turner 1993). Instead, Winton suggests Australia has, as a whole, incorporated the natural landscape as an integral part of the national culture:
Over generations colonial contempt slowly and fitfully made way for diffidence. This was supplanted by an affection tempered by ambivalence and uncertainty, and in recent decades there has been an emergent admiration and respect for the land we find ourselves in … like family, it refuses to be incidental. (2015: 28–29)
If then I return to Brien’s idea of memoir as a vehicle for using ‘personal narrative as framework for much larger cultural history’ (2004: 94), it is clear that Winton and Drewe — though influenced and inspired by similar coastal environments — have responded to those landscapes in somewhat distinct ways. While both see beach landscapes as integral parts of their childhood, Winton’s writing is frequently reverent where Drewe’s is frequently cautious. Both take solace from the beach — one as a surfer; one as a body-surfer — but Drewe’s fear of sharks and drowning temper any outright joy. Where Winton has moved to an environmental frame of mind when considering the landscape, Drewe, perhaps, is still focused on surviving it. Winton’s style is certainly more laden with imagery and metaphor; techniques he attributes in The boy behind the curtain to his early life spent as a scholar of religious texts. Drewe’s journalistic techniques are embedded within his work, but also humour and a love of farcical or ironic moments.
By explicitly embedding the landscape as a central thematic concern of Island home and Land’s edge, Winton has shown what Perreten (2003) suggests is the ‘intimate relationship’ between self and nature necessary to eco-autobiography. Drewe, although suffering from ‘islomania’ (a love of islands) as he describes it in Montebello, appears to hold some distance between himself and the landscape, perhaps too uncomfortably aware of the dangers it continues to conceal.
It is possible to suggest that these authors, linked as they are by their location and love for the landscape, have created memoirs that read quite differently. Their voice, style, and tone throughout are distinct, while being harmonious with their fiction. Tim Winton and Robert Drewe are popular writers in Australia, and it is not impossible to suggest that their works have contributed to and influenced popular culture and our perceptions of Australian identity. I argue that these books could all be considered coastal memoirs — personal narratives that help frame a wider understanding of how the coastline shapes the Australian imaginary.
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