This highly acclaimed memoir was published in 2000, and has since been made into a TV series released in 2003. Robert Drewe, first a journalist and later a novelist, has an arresting tale to tell, and the literary skills to tell it with affection, humour, some bitterness and a good deal of drama.
The memoir tells the story of his coming of age from a child to a man in Perth, then the remotest capital city in the world, during the 1950s and ‘60s. When Robert was six, his father Roy, who worked for the Dunlop Rubber Company, was transferred from Victoria to Western Australia and the whole family had to make the adjustment to life in the raw suburbs built on the sand hills around the city. After a short period of transition – where his mother makes him wear shoes and socks instead of the bare feet favoured by the other boys, and warms him against sunstroke (or boiling brain as she calls it) – Drewe finds much to love about his new home. Through the prism of his family life, he tells of experiences that were common to boys growing up in this period – adventures with neighbouring children, Saturday afternoons at ‘the pictures’, interaction with girls and a growing interest in sex.
Through the specifics of his own family, Drewe also manages to give a fascinating picture of the social setting of suburban life in Perth at the time. Roy rises fairly quickly to become branch manager for Dunlop – it is ‘a branch manager town’ – and the family mixes with all the other middle class business people who live nearby. Since Dunlop makes sporting goods like tennis racquets and sponsors sporting events, Roy and his wife often entertain famous tennis players and other sportspeople; Robert rubs up against fame much more often than most boys. But his picture of family life also has darker currents running beneath it. Roy is bluff and hearty to his mates, but bad tempered and demanding with his wife and children. Does he hit her? Is he unfaithful to her? Possibly and probably, though Drewe never says so directly. He grows up alienated from his father, and at odds with his mother. Because he is such a good writer, this combination of family concerns and social backdrop works seamlessly.
But there is an additional element to all this; right from the beginning of the book, we are aware of the fear and horror caused to the people of Perth by a serial killer who murdered eight strangers between 1958 and 1963, and committed a number of other violent crimes. The story starts with the man’s committal hearing; Drewe is present as a junior crime reporter, watching with terribly mixed feelings. One of the people he killed was a friend of Drewe’s and one of the murder weapons belonged to another friend. Drewe has met and spoken with the man a number of times. At several points in the book Drewe adds sections in which he imagines what the man might have been thinking and doing at various stages of his life. Not till quite a long way through the story, with all the suspense-building skill of a good novelist, does he eventually reveal who the murderer is.
Like many coming of age stories, this one can be seen as a loss of innocence, by both Drewe himself and by Perth as a result of the murders. The book’s title is clearly a metaphor on a number of levels. Near the end, he ponders the usefulness of shark nets –nets set up to keep sharks away from beaches and swimmers. The distance – mostly desert – between Perth and the eastern states, from which all things bad emanate, is its own protecting shark net. Perth beaches don’t have shark nets; the shark was in any case inside the society, killing at will. And in his own life, Drewe thinks that there are sharks cruising just below the surface of everyday things, just as there are in the sea he loves. Yet the book concludes on an optimistic note, as Drewe leaves Perth for a job on the eastern sea board, passing, if you like, to the other side of the shark net which may protect, but also stultifies.
In his author’s note, Drewe says ‘this is a both a book of memory and my portrait of a place and time. Memory may falter and portraiture is a highly subjective endeavour, but I have tried to tell a truthful story.’ I guess this pre-empts my usual gripe that no one can possibly remember so much of their childhood, including conversations, in such detail. The novelist doesn’t have to. It’s a case of creative remembering that adheres as best it can to the truth. But I did note what is left out, even if I didn’t really miss it. Some of his experiences ring true to my upbringing in another small provincial state capital at much the same time – bearing in mind the gender differences of course. But one huge dissimilarity is that the first question anyone in Adelaide asked then of anyone else was what school they went to. There isn’t any reference at all to Drewe’s life at school, or his intellectual life. Obviously he must have read more than the comics he admits to. But school? He’d never have got away without mentioning it in Adelaide.
You can read more about Robert Drewe and his work here. He doesn’t seem to have a web page, but here’s a long article about him – which fills in some of those school details. Perhaps he thought he’d sound like he was blowing his own trumpet if he put them in. The article was published at the time his second memoir, Montebello appeared in 2012.