A Sand Archive
Gregory Day, like Tim Winton, is an Australian novelist connected with an Australian place. While Winton writes about Western Australia, Day’s points of reference typically lie along Victoria’s Great Ocean Road. Like his earlier work, Day’s latest novel also seduces readers to think more deeply about the area’s famously picturesque landscape and its towns, such as Barwon Heads, Breamlea, Split Point.
A Sand Archive is narrated in the first person by a character who works part-time at a Geelong bookshop, who plans to write the “untold history of the building of Victoria’s Great Ocean Road in short historico-poetic vignettes, in the manner of the great Latin American writer Eduardo Galeano”. The narrator produces an album of songs on that subject – just as the author did – but he also becomes obsessed with a little-known book, The Great Ocean Road: Dune Stabilisation and Other Engineering Difficulties, by an engineer named F. B. Herschell. The novel that we read is one that explores Herschell’s life and the development of his thinking about “the enigmas of sand – its changeability, its slow and granular accumulation, its propensity to shift and slump whilst ... growing heavier, deeper and higher”.
The novel’s staging thus plays with autofiction, historical fiction and heteronymous traditions of writing. This ambiguous and shifting territory of the novel finds its parallel in the mysterious and changing nature of the sand dunes studied by Herschell. His research takes him to the largest sand dune in Europe, the Dune du Pyla in France. Visiting Paris, Herschell also experiences the socialist revolution of May 1968 and falls in love. These human transformations are poignantly framed in relation to the changing landscapes of sand dunes, which are “made up of a million cellular impulses, organic motions, continuities and disjunctures”.
Day may be a regional writer, but he is never provincial. Herschell’s thinking about sand – and life – develops via Piet Mondrian’s dune pictures and the work of writers and philosophers such as Marcel Proust, Frantz Fanon and Albert Camus. The novel is an elegiac meditation on worlds changed by natural processes and human forces. Ultimately, through Herschell’s character, it provides a model for the kind of rigorous and poetic attentiveness that might best honour the profundities of our landscapes and the lives we experience alongside them. KN
Picador, 320pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 21, 2018 as "Gregory Day, A Sand Archive ". Subscribe here.