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Land's Edge: a coastal memoir, By Tim Winton

A novelist captures all the glamour, and terror, of the sea

The last time I was in Perth (Australia, not Scotland), a fellow-swimmer was scoffed up by a passing shark. His rash vest was all that was left of him. The victim had left behind a prophetic, posthumous message: "Leave the shark alone!" He half expected to be eaten and he didn't think there should be any vindictive pursuit à la Jaws. "He's right," said one of the lifeguards. "Shark's only doing what comes naturally."

I think Tim Winton would approve. Winton's novels are microcosms of West Australia. His last, Breath, was a hymn to surfing, book-ended by scenes of auto-asphyxiation. Land's Edge is non-fiction: an existential evocation of his life on the beach. Oddly enough, Winton owes it all to the wind. Specifically, the "Fremantle Doctor": as regular as a caesura in an alexandrine, it divides up the day. In the morning, Winton was a beachboy, surfing or fishing or being Lawrence of Arabia amid the dunes; in the afternoon, forced inside by the sandblasting wind, he morphed into a bookworm. The (semi-)adult Winton still sneaks off to the beach, like a dolphin coming up for air. At the same time, he acknowledges that his closest shaves have occurred there. One day he and his Dad are out in a dinghy when a massive set of waves comes zeroing in on them. They get over the top of the first one, the next is huge – they blast through the top of that – and then they fly out into the air only to see the third: unstoppable, blotting out the horizon, doomed to come down on them like a guillotine. They turn and make a run for it. The young Winton ends up being bounced along the reef and given the laundering of a lifetime.

As he rightly comments, "Australians do not go to 'the seaside' the way the English do." The beach, the "verandah" at the edge of the continent, is half-fantasy, half-horror story. Winton is brilliant at exploring this ambiguity, with the prospect of the wipeout always only one wave away, but infused with a sense of the sacred, even as the shark siren goes off again and an uncle comes galloping out of the shallows with an octopus round his leg.

I gobbled up this short but shimmering book in one windswept afternoon. Winton's beach is a state of mind, poised poignantly between the savage and the symbolic. Reading it put me in mind of the feeling of revelation I had when I discovered a stack of Australian Surfing Life magazines on top of a cupboard in a surf shack in Yallingup, with a large snake curled up, dozing, in the shower.

Andy Martin's 'Beware Invisible Cows' is published by Simon & Schuster