Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 14, 2018

A Sand Archive (2018), by Gregory Day

A Sand Archive (529x800)Gregory Day’s new novel A Sand Archive, is such an exquisite book, I was really sorry to turn the last page.  It reminded me a little of Stoner by John Williams and Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life in the way that it portrays an ordinary, unobtrusive man who isn’t really ordinary at all.

As I said in the Sensational Snippet that I posted yesterday,  the central character FB Herschell is a young civil engineer who, tasked with stabilising the dunes along Victoria’s iconic Great Ocean Road, visits Paris in 1968, on a scholarship to study strategies used in Europe.  He subsequently self-publishes a book with the unexciting title The Great Ocean Road: Dune Stabilisation and Other Engineering Difficulties and it is the unexpected poetry of this book that is a catalyst for the writing of this ‘sand archive’ (which purports to be) by a young writer who briefly knew Herschell.  If you recall your surprise when reading Kate Grenville’s Orange Prize-winning The Idea of Perfection which portrayed a man who held our interest despite knowing more about concrete than most of us wish to know, then you will perhaps experience a similar frisson in discovering FB Herschell and his sand dunes.

The narrator meets Herschell in a bookshop in Geelong, a city now shedding its industrial past but decidedly prosaic back in the 1980s.  He had discovered Dune Stabilisation and Other Engineering Difficulties when researching his own history of the Great Ocean Road, and now at work in the bookshop finds the author himself before him…

Like so much that went on in that bookshop, FB Herschell’s presence came as a stimulating intersection between what is written on paper and what is actually breathing and alive.  Suddenly those fusty initials on that slim grey-brown volume had become a living man in front of me, chatting with my fellow staff members.  And rather than that leaky desiccated type on a dun background, his eyes gleamed with the freshness of ongoing life, his mouth constantly finding shapes of dry appreciation, his pleasure evident at finding other people who dwelt deep in the nourishing but often overlooked vanishing points of beauty and knowledge.

To be honest, though, the most important thing for me was this: he had liked one of the books I had written and in his understated way wanted to make that clear to me. (p.5)

The narrator tells the story of Herschell’s epiphany in France.  Inadvertently drawn into the civil unrest in 1968 he meets a lovely young woman called Mathilde, and discovers an intellectual, political and sensual world utterly unlike his puritan life at home with his mother in Geelong.  Under the guidance of a quixotic professor who, as part of the scholarship, escorts him along the French coastline, he also learns what he needs to know about dune stabilisation.  And there in France he has to confront his desire to stay with Mathilde even at the expense of abandoning a cause which is very important to him.  The decision is made for him and thus the unnamed narrator comes to write this book as an homage to a man undiminished by fates which conspired against him.

Along the way, the narrator comments on all sorts of aspects of Australian life:

It is hard in the internet era for people to comprehend the lag that used to exist between the emergence of new cultural trends in Europe or America and their arrival here in Australia.  For instance, people speak of the counterculture of the 1960s as a global phenomenon that transformed the world from the prim materialism of the postwar era to the open-house experimentation associated with Andy Warhol, Wilhelm Reich and the Beatles.  But in Australia the ’60s actually happened in the 1970s, and in some ways it was only our direct involvement in the Vietnam War that saved us from missing the cultural revolution altogether. (p. 38)

For those like Herschell, whose papers revealed the accumulation of an astonishing range of books ordered in from overseas, opportunities to connect with like-minded others were rare:

At that late stage of his life, and in the haven of the bookshop in James Street, there was a compact.  If Oulipo was mentioned, or a topic as licentious or outrageous as Wilhelm Reich and his orgone accumulator, no one blinked an eyelid.  Some laughter might be heard, born of the nonchalance of those who’d arrived on earth too late to really understand the strictures and crises of the twentieth century and the experimentation they produced, but nonetheless, in the bookshop, FB, who did understand such things, felt less alone.  We connected.  Not through the disembodied glitches of the internet but with all our five senses working.  In the same room as each other.  In a room in a regional city, a room full of books in Geelong. (p.56)

(I used to feel that connectedness in the common areas of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, as it used to be, when it was at the Malthouse).

The lyricism of Day’s writing is full of surprises as his images morph from the timeless to the present day… he’s getting to be one of my most favourite writers.

Even as I write this I feel his story grinding down like silica in my hands.  His papers are blown sand, nibbled-at reefs, shingle on the shores of my imagination.  Time, which often seems to be a synonym for wind, ruffles the sequence and softens the sharp edges.  The moments that moved him, each moment as it relaxed or tightened his heart, is compressed down into the undermarl. What was active and dynamic in the margins of history’s momentous day is manageable now, somehow smoothed and rounded.

This is how nostalgia makes its inevitable case, this time for me to view FB and Mathilde as subjects of some hand-tipped picture postcard, or an oversaturated image offered up by Google, of two young lovers in the hip 1960s, touristic emblems presented by the Department for the History of Western Youth.  (p.121)

The cover design is by Alissa Dinallo.  You may need to enlarge it to see clearly the small figure of the man in an incongruous suit making his way across the sand.

Author: Gregory Day
Title: A Sand Archive
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan) 2018.
ISBN: 9781760552145
Review copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan

Available from Fishpond: A Sand Archive and all good bookshops everywhere.


  1. Sounds fabulous, Lisa! Thank you so much for alerting me that he has a new novel out. I’ve read all of them and interviewed him for my book and am a big fan!


    • I haven’t read the second two in the Mangowak Trilogy – I discovered his writing quite late and have some catching up to do.


      • Something to look forward to!


  2. Funny that this is published the year of the fiftieth anniversary of Mai 68.
    I’m not sure I could follow him because of his style but the bridge he builds between France and Australia intrigues me.


  3. I’m stopped at roadworks in the Pilbara (bloody hot) so I must be brief.
    I like someone who recognises that the 60s didn’t happen in Oz till the 70s.
    Was greatly excited by Paris 68 and read up all I could on it, esp. Obsolete Communism, the Leftwing Alternative.
    (about to move off)
    I thought the Great Ocean Road coastline was all rocks.
    I can definitely see the poetry in fluid mechanics


  4. […] with poet and musician David McCooey and one of my favourite authors Gregory Day (whose A Sand Archive I reviewed not long ago). I would have loved to have heard Day talk more about his novels, but this […]


  5. […] A Sand Archive, by Gregory Day […]


  6. […] Gregory Day: A Sand Archive (Picador), (see my review) […]


  7. […] Day’s A sand archive (Lisa’s review) […]


  8. […] A Sand Archive by Gregory Day (Picador Australia), see my review […]


  9. […] Day’s A sand archive (Lisa’s review) […]


  10. […]  Sand Archive by Gregory Day (Picador Australia), see my review […]


  11. […] A Sand Archive shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and my favourite (so far) […]


  12. […] Update 30/11/20 Click on these links for my reviews for Archipelago of Souls (2015) and A Sand Archive (2018). […]


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