I’ve had a life-long love of sand – beach sand that is. For most of this life I’ve loved disporting myself on it, soaking up the sun half-naked till scare campaigns and age put an end to all that hedonism on my part. These days I perambulate along strands rather than being supine. My island is blessed by stunning beaches – and right now I am close to two of the best – Boat Harbour and Sisters. But there’s wilder sand too. Dune Sand. Coastal dune sand, at places such as Henty on the West Coast and Boobyalla up the North-east, is formed by wind into ever-moving nature-built monoliths. The latter was a favourite of my father as he explored, foraged and hunted around those parts, entranced by its wildness.
Now we have a novel about a fellow who himself spent a life time in studying such dunes. He concentrated on how to control their steady march to prevent valuable land and infrastructure being submerged. Now this may seem dry fare, to say the least, as the basis for an engaging read, but in the hands of Gregory Day it becomes enthralling. His talent as a wordsmith first came to my attention in his previous tome, ‘Archipelago of Souls’, set on another wild place, King Island. So I knew he could make this arid subject matter come alive. I was not let down. I loved it. It will no doubt be one of my reads for the year.
FB Herschell was a minor engineering functionary for the Victorian Country Roads Board of Works, operating out of Geelong in the 1960s. He was tasked to stablise the sand dunes on a section of the Great Ocean Road. To garner the best knowledge possible, as to how to go about this, he successfully applies to go to Paris to consult a leading expert on sand shifting, as well as to visit a major project in the south west of France. The year he embarks on his fact finding mission is significant – 1968. As fate would have it, in the City of Love, he meets and falls under the spell of Mathilde, a student revolutionary. She just happens to hail from Arcachon. It’s in the heart of the dune country he is about to visit, near the ginormous Grande Dune du Pyla, the most massive in Europe. Of course marram grass is the answer there, as he expects it to be back home. Its suitability in Australian conditions becomes a bone of contention later in the book.
But what happens to his love affair with his captivating, but conflicted, young lady? I’ll only say she is not the woman he spends his later years with back in Oz. In his dotage he realizes his life work has had only minimal impact on the planet for he had, ‘… sat, year after year, in the McKillop Street (Geelong) office, attempting to widen the parameters of sand. He well understood the public purpose of these activities, but there was a private universe in them as well. And in that private universe was a city of his imagination, where the tall elegant gates of the Jardin des Plantes slowly opened onto a humid darkness.’
Paris played large in his remaining days as FB composed a summation of his endeavours, ‘The Great Ocean Road: Dune Stabilisation and Other Engineering Difficulties’. But, in the between the lines of the parched sentences he wrote on the topic, in this rarely read small publication, are the clues that provide the basis for this sad, joyous, poetic and erudite rendering from another mind capable of ‘…bravura work’. It is lovely, just lovely.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s review of the novel = https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/a-sand-archive-review-gregory-days-novel-of-the-consolations-of-a-solitary-man-20180712-h12l02.html