Western Australian Writing Review: The Drowner by Robert Drewe
Pan Macmillan, 1996
The best books leave you gasping for air, drowning in jealousy that you did not write them. They fill you with the need to reread them, to prove to yourself the assumptions you have made. They make sense only in a place of consciousness which exists in the space between reader and writer, and linger like perfume in the air a while after you've finished.
Robert Drewe's The Drowner is one of the best books I have read this year.
I stumbled across it by chance. Looking for scholarly material on The Shark Net, I came across a discussion of water themes in Drewe's work. If you've read The Drowner you'll know why this is. The book powerfully evokes themes of water as an instrument of chaos, life and passion; something to be both feared and worshipped. From references to Shakespeare's Hamlet to recollections of Western Australia's past, Drewe paints a picture of tragedy and hope using a contrast of water and the lack of it.
The novel follows the life of lead character Will Dance, by profession a 'drowner'. After a chance meeting with the actress Angelica Lloyd in a public bath, water becomes a symbol not only of duty for Will but of passion. But for Angelica, her relationship with water is fraught with tension- an event in her past leaves her somewhat fascinated with the idea of drowning. Angelica and Will make their way to Western Australia so that Will can work on C.Y. O'Connor's Goldfields pipelines. Also tied up in this narrative are Angelica's father Hammond "Ham" Lloyd, the sometimes foolish and sometimes menacing actor, a figure of both love and loss in Angelica's life; Inez Gosper, the Melbourne woman who comes to the goldfield to nurse; Axel Boehm, the photographer with a secret; Felix Locke, the undertaker who longs for the touch of a living human and Dr Malebranche with his penchant for prostitutes. Their lives of desperation in a country town are transformed into something both normal and fascinated by Drewe's masterful prose. Never a purple phrase to lead the reader astray, The Drowner is a paragon of literary restraint.
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As a Western Australian novel, The Drowner is gently situated without becoming narrow in focus. While Drewe uses the medium of drama and the state's reaction to the pipeline being built as an excuse to meditate on themes of West, the story itself in universal. Oftentimes, Drewe uses Ham and Angelica to make an ironic comparison between West End- the symbol of culture- and The West- a frontier which seems devoid of all.