'Montebello' by Robert Drewe
'Montebello', Robert Drewe, Hamish Hamilton; $29.99
On the day in 1952 that Britain detonated the first of three atomic bombs off the Pilbara coast, Robert Drewe was in a Perth phone box, begging a late-pass from his mother. He was nine; his mother was anxious. “Atom bombs worry the blazes out of me, and I want you at home,” she ordered. He did as he was told.
If only Dorothy Drewe, spunky housewife and mother of three, had been running the country, the Montebello archipelago might have been spared its nuclear devastation. But Robert Menzies, ever the colonial doormat, ushered in the British, and over four years a combined nuclear load of 138 kilotons was unleashed on the islands, annihilating untold wildlife, and endangering the men in shorts and sandals observing it. It also blew radioactive fallout across the continent as far as the atolls of Fiji.
Who better than Robert Drewe to navigate a national drama with some personal history of his own? Raised in Western Australia, jaundiced by years in journalism, and exercised by novel writing, Drewe has both the chops, and the sensibility, for the task. It is not an easy one, drawing, as it does, on so many episodes of this country’s sorry history.
The memoir takes flight when Drewe, enamoured with islands since childhood, joins a crew of government ecologists on a species repopulation project on the Montebellos. His brilliant account of what he finds there is fleshed out with detours into his own past – boyhood, manhood, fatherhood. “Islomania came close to being my personal narrative,” he writes, by which it seems he means a certain weakness for circular stories, emotional circumnavigation, incarceration fantasies, isolation and despair.
Feeling at once enlightened and stranded on the archipelago, he begins to pull in and manipulate strands of memory, breaking from the task only to seek out telephonic sweet spots to chat with the married woman in Perth he’s seducing, and with his daughter, to whom he sings lullabies. “I missed the children,” he writes. “No matter how pleasant the island, there’s a point when it dawns on you that you’re stuck here.”
Drewe is a born raconteur: brilliantly funny, debonair, a larrikin and a rake. He can also be rather self-regarding, as in chapters charting his career, and one in which he recounts a trip to Rottnest Island to show a daughter the shallows where he once did the business with her mother.
But these are forgiven when the bulk of this memoir works such sweet and poignant charm; and on sharks, parents and childhood pleasures, Drewe is the nation’s undisputed laureate.