Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Water, water everywhere

Landscape plays an important part in many novels, especially in Australian novels, and in Australian fiction water is often a theme. The large coastline of the island continent ensures that much Australian fiction is set near beaches. As well as physical descriptions of the landscape the power of water, especially of the ocean, can be viewed as a force to be challenged, a world of freedom or as an opportunity for escape. It can also be portrayed as part of the Australian psyche.

Two authors whose books often feature water in their books are Robert Drewe and Tim Winton.

Most of the short stories in Robert Drewe's latest book, The Rip, involve water in some way. In a number of the stories water is in the background, not a dominant force, but in some of the stories water is a central character. The author examines a range of relationships in the stories and the reactions of people to situations but in many of the stories the catalyst for the events that occur is water. The analogy of a prison to an aquarium, the reactions to a possible tsunami, the escape of swimming laps in a pool, the need to impress someone by challenging the sea are a few of the scenarios in this book of Australian short stories.

In 1993 Robert Drew edited The Penguin book of the beach, a collection of 25 short stories written by authors from many countries including Australia. In the introduction Robert Drewe writes that he chose these stories "not only because I think they represent the best of contemporary shorter fiction writing about the beach - the coasts, ocean shores, bays, dunes, lagoons and rivers... They share a concern with pressing personal, social and political questions,, their satiric, humorous or fantastic sidelong glance often revealing more than direct realistic examination. ... The role of the beach in contemporary fiction may be literally gauged by the stories' subject matter. The vast majority deal with escape, often from the next most possible category - family and sexual relationships. These are followed in popularity by drowning, growing up and the mysterious voyage/journey to the Apocalypse." (p 4-5) Authors in this anthology include Graham Swift, Ian McEwan, Frank Moorhouse, Helen Garner, David Malouf and Tim Winton.

Water is a theme in much of the writing of Tim Winton. This is particularly the case in his latest novel, Breath. Set in Western Australia two young boys, Pikelet and Loonie, enjoy taking risks first in the river and then in the surf some miles from where they live. The book deals with relationships between the two boys and Sando and Eva but it also revolves around the relationship of the boys with the surf - the power of the surf, the danger of the surf, the allure of the surf. The need to conquer bigger and bigger waves. The need to take risks, to face death, to survive. The novel also explores sexual risk taking. Throughout the book there are references to breathing, the necessity for life. This is a beautifully written book.

The power of the surf to take over one's life is also observed in Di Morrissey's latest novel, The Islands. A love story set in Australia and in Hawaii, primarily in the 1970s, Catherines' life changes when she discovers the freedom brought about learning to surf and meeting challenges. The power of the ocean over the lives of many of the characters that Catherine meets when living in Hawaii is a major component of this book.

Learning to conquer fear of the ocean and learning to surf is a also a theme in Kathy Lette's new book, To love, honour and betray, a zany account of coping with a broken marriage and living with teenage daughters. Set in Sydney much of the action occurs at the local surf club where Lucy faces the challenges of gaining the Bronze Medallion as well as travelling down the hard road of self discovery.

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