James Mcnamara

A terrible beauty | 9 June 2016

Island Home is a powerful paean to a savage land where every step has the thrill of death

It was only when I left Western Australia for university in England that I understood how vast and dangerous my homeland is. In freshers’ week, a group of us had spent a happy afternoon at a waterside pub. As we traced the pollen-dusty river back to Oxford, my friend Anish was overcome with joy (some might say cider) and capered into a field of long dry grass. Summer left me. I yelled for him to stop — stand still now, or he would die.

When my friends stopped laughing, they assured me that the only way to be harmed by English nature is if you put your face up to a consumptive badger and it sneezed. That this field, all fields, weren’t full of tiger snakes was a novel relief. And so I joined Anish, whooping in the grass.

Western Australia is one of the last frontiers. Roughly the size of western Europe, its population is less than Greater Manchester’s. In Britain, no matter how remote you feel, there’s always an air ambulance or a motorway. In WA, there can be 360 degrees of burning sky around you and 1,000 miles to help. That isolation is dangerous but appealing. It gets into your blood.

My compatriot Tim Winton had a similar realisation. He found the Swiss Alps claustrophobic, realising that he was ‘instinctively searching for distances that were unavailable’, unsettled by ‘a vista of almost unrelieved enclosure and domestication’. He ‘yearned’ for the ‘white-hot charge’ of the West Australian sun, the ‘wild opportunity’ of home.

Island Home is a paean to that landscape, an exquisite book that functions as literary memoir, nature writing, and environmentalist’s creed. The triumvirate is appropriate for Winton. ‘Landscape,’ he says, ‘has exerted a… force upon me that is every bit as geological as family.’

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