Review by Frank Plowright
Instead of taking the obvious route in providing a history of surfing, Aj Dungo instead weaves it within his own surfing experiences, and those of his girlfriend Kirsten.
Surfing has always been associated with a sense of freedom, a challenge a solitary person can experience just pitting themselves against waves with no-one else around, yet we learn the sense of freedom has deeper meaning. Inhabitants of the Hawaiian islands had always surfed, but when those islands were occupied and Western missionaries began interfering with lives, surfing was literally the means of temporary escape. However, the skill largely died out until tourism increased in the early 1900s, at which point surfing became a marketable commodity, and a lifestyle to be copied.
Dungo supplies the information in a very illustrative style, always prioritising space, whether relating his own experiences or the history, differentiated by turquoise and light brown respectively. He’ll frequently draw attention to the sense of isolation and the vastness of the sea via small people placed in the water on a shaded spread, and it’s a rare occasion when he moves the viewpoint any closer than a half body shot. Every now and then portraits of famous surfers are included, but people connected with Dungo are as often as not concealed, looking away instead of out of the picture.
As far as the history is concerned, Dungo restricts it to the experiences of two people. Duke Kahanamoku was an early Olympic swimming champion before his surfing revelation, and his later protégé Tom Blake is credited with designing the modern day surfboard as we know it, then wrote the first surfing manual. Both are given the space for their achievements to be recognised.
Ultimately Dungo awkwardly glues two very different stories together, and his illustrative style extends the fusion to over 350 pages, far more than is necessary to tell either. His personal story is a memorial to girlfriend Kirsten, diagnosed with bone cancer shortly after they meet as teenagers, and who was a keen surfer. His depiction of her trials and bravery heartbreakingly underlines the title’s dual meaning, although is prefaced by too much that’s commonplace as they come together. However well meaning and heartfelt, In Waves is eventually a collection of notable illustrations occasionally interrupted by a story. Due to the way it’s told it’s unlikely to have the intended impact, and Dungo would have been better off prioritising one strand and leaving the other for a separate project.