Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 14, 2013

Land’s Edge, A Coastal Memoir (1993), by Tim Winton

Land's EdgeTim Winton is said to be one of Australia’s best-loved novelists, and he has won countless awards, most notably the Miles Franklin four times.  If you’ve read my review of Breath you’ll know that I’m not an enthusiast, but I have to say that Land’s Edge, A Coastal Memoir, a little book of only 100-odd pages that I stumbled on at the library last week,  has some exquisite writing.

The Sydney Morning Herald on the dust-jacket calls it a ‘love letter to the beach’ – and that’s not my favourite place to be, so I nearly put it back on the shelves.  But I flicked through the pages anyway, and I found this somewhat provocative statement:

Western Australians are great trashers and thrashers – it’s a proud tradition and one we’re always threatening to defend by seceding from the rest of the country.  A state of small people with big bulldozers.  But now and then even we see something that causes us to back off and think before we shoot; little blessings and miracles get through. (p. 36)

Intrigued, I took Land’s Edge home and read it …

If you’ve read Cloudstreet,  Dirt Music, or The Turning, you know that Winton doesn’t romanticise his fellow-man:

West coasters live in the teeth of the wind.  Distance, waterlessness, relentless weather have made them taciturn.  If you do meet them on that virginal beach John Blight speaks of, they won’t detain you long. Fishing makes them secretive; they fear greenies, people from the government, visitors with a rod and reel. …

… Their faces are crusty with cancers and they give little away with their smiling faraway stares.  They are not romantic people and this is not a romantic coast.  They feel forgotten, neglected, put upon, and yet proud to be far away, on the edge.  But in truth, they are less different than they imagine. (p.102)

For like Winton himself, these people share a ‘longing for excitement and surprise’ and they too can be touched by natural wonders.

Winton gives three examples of coastal wonders that even ‘trashers and thrashers’ value:

  • Monkey Mia, the only place in the world where you can …. touch a free dolphin, feel its powerful bulk, look it directly in the eye and feel it slide back out of reach unafraid; (p. 40-41)
  • a swim with a whale shark [near Exmouth] …something that awes even those who do it every day; (p. 44) and 
  • a remarkable natural phenomenon that took place in 1993 at Cape Cuvier:

…  a dark mass formed at the base of the high yellow cliffs there and spread like the stain of an oil slick two kilometres long.  An unseasonal easterly blew the sea flat, and the water was so clear that onlookers could see the black belt change shape, elongating here, fattening up there, as though it were alive.  To seaward, on the perimeter, were other shadows, small mobile blots that moved in on the big mass, causing it to retreat and press up against the cliffbase so close the spectator could now make out what he still couldn’t believe. That was no oil slick down there.  It was a vast school of fish being herded by tiger sharks, Spanish mackerel and Bryde’s whales beneath a natural amphitheatre.

What followed for weeks on end was not so much a feeding frenzy as a nonchalant and amiable slaughter before an ever-growing audience.  Marine biologists, tourists, fishermen, news crews gathered on the cliffs to watch whales, sharks and pelagics casually taking turns at gliding into the black cloud of anchovies that made space for them the way the weak always will for the powerful.  The predators moved open-mouthed through the captive school, cutting a swathe without gnashing or excitement, leaving only a green trail of clear water behind them that closed up again as the terrified fish bunched for security’s sake.  Those not feeding cruised the perimeter, herding, shaping, intimidating the millions of little fish.  Spanish mackerel, tuna and yellowtail kings worked alongside bronze whalers and tiger sharks.

It’s a stunning image, superbly rendered. You can read an even longer extract here.

This edition is a 2010 hardback reprint of the original which was first published in 1993, and it features a selection of beach photos by Narelle Autio.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Tim Winton
Title: Land’s Edge, A Coastal Memoir
Publisher: Penguin Australia, 1993
ISBN: 9781926428284
Source: Kingston Library


Fishpond: Land’s Edge: A Coastal Memoir


  1. -I’m a great fan of ‘Cloudstreet’, didn’t care for his “The Riders” very much. I can see that “Cloudstreet” is a real Australian crowd-pleaser; I wonder if anyone has tried to make it into a movie yet.


    • I think Cloudstreet was just recently made into a mini series? Lisa


  2. Wow. Tim Winton has always been a hit or a miss with me (as many good writers are, striving as they do for anything but mediocrity). I had not heard of this one but will definitely check it out.


  3. I ve only read him twice breath and dirt music I did like both this seems like a book that could be read in an evening ,seems like quite a personnel book ,all the best stu


  4. Hi Lisa, oh wow, how I love Tim Winton. This particular title was gifted to me by a good Aussie mate, the same one who introduced me to Winton in the first place (The Turning). The edition she gave me is a softcover, almost-coffee table book, full of glossy colour photographs. I absolutely love it. For a long time I had it on the entry table of our house, which (being the NZ Embassy residence) was a minor scandal (!), but I loved it enough to want to pass it off as ours… I’m not sure if we have a NZ equivalent – a literary and photographic ode to a landscape and its people.


    • Nadine, I think this edition must be almost the same, but hardcover. The photos really add to it, I think that’s why I flicked through it to see them. The photographer has won heaps of awards.
      Karenlee, what I found interesting is that I’d never heard of this one either, I thought I knew all his titles, indeed I have collected some of them in first edition even though I haven’t read them. One of them is called a skinny little fable called Blueback – have you read that one?


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