October 2012

Arts & Letters

'Montebello' by Robert Drewe

By Catherine Ford

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.

Catherine Ford

Catherine Ford is a freelance journalist. Her books include NYC and Dirt.

'Montebello', Robert Drewe, Hamish Hamilton; $29.99
Cover: October 2012

October 2012

From the front page

Bring Assange Home: MPs

The US extradition case against the Australian journalist sets a dangerous precedent

Image of Steve Kilbey

The Church frontman Steve Kilbey

The prolific singer-songwriter reflects on four decades and counting in music

Illustration

Bait and switch

Lumping dingoes in with “wild dogs” means the native animals are being deliberately culled

Cover of ‘The Testaments’

‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood

The Booker Prize–winning sequel to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is an exhilarating thriller from the “wiliest writer alive”


In This Issue

'Lore' by Cate Shortland (director)

'Silent House', Orhan Pamuk, Hamish Hamilton; $29.99

'Silent House' by Orhan Pamuk

'Questions of Travel', Michelle de Kretser,
Allen and Unwin; $39.99

'Questions of Travel' by Michelle de Kretser

Brett Whiteley painting Francis Bacon's portrait, London, 1984. Photograph by John Edwards. Image courtesy of Art Gallery NSW.

Anecdotes

Remembering Australian painters


More in Arts & Letters

Image of Jia Tolentino

Radical ambiguity: Jia Tolentino, Rachel Cusk and Leslie Jamison

The essay collections ‘Trick Mirror’, ‘Coventry’ and ‘Make It Scream, Make It Burn’ offer doubt and paradoxical thinking in the face of algorithmic perfectionism

Image of Archie Roach

A way home: Archie Roach

The writer of ‘Took the Children Away’ delivers a memoir of his Stolen Generations childhood and an album of formative songs

Image from ‘The Irishman’

Late style: Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’

Reuniting with De Niro, Pacino and Pesci, the acclaimed director has delivered less of a Mob film than a morality play

Still from Todd Phillips’ ‘Joker’

No one’s laughing now: Todd Phillips’ ‘Joker’

A gripping psychological study of psychosis offers a surprising change of pace in the superhero genre


More in Noted

Image of ‘Wild River, Florida’

‘Civilization: The Way We Live Now’

The beautiful photographs of often grim subjects in NGV Australia’s exhibition raise questions over the medium’s power to critique

Cover of ‘The Testaments’

‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood

The Booker Prize–winning sequel to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is an exhilarating thriller from the “wiliest writer alive”

Cover of ‘The Man Who Saw Everything’

‘The Man Who Saw Everything’ by Deborah Levy

The British author experiments with a narrative structure that collapses past and present

‘The weekend’ cover

‘The Weekend’ by Charlotte Wood

The Stella Prize–winner returns with a stylish character study of women surprised by age


Read on

Image of Steve Kilbey

The Church frontman Steve Kilbey

The prolific singer-songwriter reflects on four decades and counting in music

Image from ‘The Report’

Interrogating the interrogators: ‘The Report’

This tale of the investigation into CIA torture during the War on Terror places too much faith in government procedure

Image of police station in Alice Springs with red handprints on wall

What really happened at Yuendumu?

The promised inquiries must answer the biggest questions raised by the police shooting of an Aboriginal man

You could drive a person crazy: Noah Baumbach’s ‘Marriage Story’

Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are at their career best in this bittersweet tale of divorce


×
×