Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 1, 2011

Drift (1994), by Brian Castro

I most often skip introductions to the novels I read, but something caught my eye in the one in Brian Castro’s Drift and I ended up reading all of it before I began reading the book.  I’m glad I did, because although it doesn’t give anything away, Katharine England provides some interesting pointers to enjoying Drift, not the least of which is this useful warning (which might apply as much to this review as it does to Brian Castro’s book):

if you like things in black and white – fixed premises, unequivocal answers – this book, in which everything moves and shifts and comes round again in subtly altered focus is probably not for you. (Introduction, x)

England quotes a paragraph from Looking for Estrellita in which Castro which explains that he prefers to read books that he doesn’t understand straight away, and that he writes similar books himself. So

Castro’s books are for readers who distrust easy certainties in fiction and like to work – and particularly play – with all the nuances of a text, reconstructing to their own individual satisfaction the author’s intentions and concerns, (Introduction, ix)

I enjoy books like this, and since I had previously enjoyed The Garden Book (2005) and The Bath Fugues (2009) (see my review), I was very pleased to see what I thought was a new novel on the Wakefield Press website. (This was despite not having yet read Pomeroy (1991), Stepper (1997) and Shanghai Dancing, (2003)  waiting patiently on my TBR).  But no, Drift is not a new novel – however its presence in Wakefield’s catalogue is even better in a way – because in an era when backlist availability is in peril, it’s great to see a publisher offering Castro’s earlier novels.   I was very pleased indeed when they very kindly sent a copy of Drift to me for review.

(As well as Castro’s fifth novel Drift, (1994) they also have available  Double Wolf (1991) and After China (1992).  These titles are now on the wishlist, as is Birds of Passage (1983) which I guess I will just have to hope will turn up in an OpShop somewhere).

Like all books that are weird and wonderful (and I mean that in the nicest possible way) Drift defies an ordinary review.   I know perfectly well that whatever I find in it on my first reading will seem inane when I read it for a second time, and also that as I read other books that he alludes to, or that cover aspects of the same terrain, there will be further fresh insights.  Proust is like that, and so is James Joyce.  They are ‘desert island books’ that you can read again and again. What follows is my first impressions, and I’d be rapt if other people who’ve read this book contribute to further conversation about it in comments.


To begin with, Drift is an homage to the British experimental writer, B.S. Johnson who took his own life in 1973.  Thanks to a review by Trevor at the Mookse and the Gripes I was enticed to read The Unfortunates, (see my thoughts here) but I haven’t read the book that was the inspiration for Drift.  According to the introduction, B.S.Johnson (who had major issues with his mother) had meant to write a trilogy called The Matrix exploring the ideas of mater/mother/motherhood and motherland – but he only finished the first one, called See The Old Lady Decently.  The idea was that his readers would (somehow) write the other two titles in the trilogy, to be called Buried Although and Among Those Left Are You.  (These three titles combined, form a sentence.)  How he would have loved the internet, which not only would have enabled his international enthusiasts to find each other via ‘viral’ sharing, but would also have been the means for them to author these titles using some sort of collaborative blog!

Anyway, Drift is Castro’s answer to this challenge, but he has added his own preoccupation with the ‘truth’ to Castro’s matrix.  He has picked up on a fragment in See the Old Lady Decently which repeats the untruth still being perpetuated when I was a child, that ‘there are now no Aborigines in Tasmania’.  Castro debunks this myth.  But not, of course, in a straightforward way…

The book’s cover art is a visual clue to some of the metaphors that pepper the pages.  The image is M.C. Escher’s Day and Night which plays with impossible reality by using black and white reverse images to show drifting both east and west.  (Click the link to see it properly, I can’t show it here due to copyright).  Castro contrasts black/white in many ways, but especially with his ‘destabilization of physical identity’ [1] when he characterises Thomas McGann as a disabled part-Aboriginal, part Anglo-Celtic albino, and the Englishman Bryan injects himself with melatonin to turn his skin-colour black.  These reversals of black-white skin colour mean that while neither’s cultural identity is shaped by skin-colour both these characters experience racism: while Emma, Thomas’s sister whose skin colour is black, is identified as Aboriginal by white males and thus gang-raped in an all-too-common rite, her brother – whose Aboriginality is questioned by whites – is reviled for his activism in repatriating Aboriginal remains from the British museum, and Bryan – whose ethnicity is a matter for puzzled speculation – is refused service in a bar.

Katharine England also notes that Castro plays with the paradox that with night-time travel the darkness outside illuminates what isn’t normally visible inside (e.g. because you can see reflections of things at an angle that you otherwise can’t see), and there’s the metaphor of ‘disappearing permanence’ with the image of those ‘magic’ writing tablets that children used to play with:  the child writes on a thin sheet of clear plastic which covers a thick waxen board so that dark black marks can be seen – but the writing disappears when the plastic is lifted.  It seems to me that Castro uses both of these metaphors to show that the darkness of Tasmania’s history paradoxically illuminates what isn’t normally seen or heard, and that these histories cannot be erased:

  • the Aboriginal women abducted and forced to be concubines by sealers
  • the unrecorded voices of the boys at Point Puer;
  • the silenced men in the Model Prison at Port Arthur
  • the descendants of the Pennemuker, the Pendowte, the Tomme-Ginner, the Pee-Rapper and the Manegin Aboriginal peoples who did not survive colonisation
  • the screams from the Cape Grim Massacre.

There are some strange characters to play with, starting with a doubling of B.S. Johnson himself: the book begins with a brief ‘biography’ of another B.S. Johnson, not B.S. (Bryan Stanley) Johnson (the original, the author who died in 1973) but a B.S. (Byron Shelley) Johnson who is also an author.    This ‘biography’ is written by another character, Thomas James McGann in 1993, and then there is another Tom McGann who’s an author too – and he writes some of this book i.e. Part 3 of Drift.  Confused?  There’s more, because this Tom is the twin of Emma McGann.  They are both Aboriginal but he’s white, because he’s an albino, and she’s black because she’s not.  They are descendants of a whaler called Thomas ‘Sperm’ McGann.

And he’s a horrible man.  The first few chapters alternate between Byron obsessing about his own obituary and scenes from ‘Sperm’ McGann’s hunt off the coast of Cape Grim in Tasmania.  Only he’s not hunting for whales, he’s hunting for females, to be abducted and raped and hideously abused and severed from their own culture.  The one McGann takes for himself is given a voice that women who were victims of this practice never had.  No one ever interviewed them or recorded their stories.  But in Castro’s re-imagining, she is called WORÉ, (which means woman, and the word is always capitalised in the text) and her lament will shock any reader when it is revealed how young she is when taken.  This McGann – in a hideous allusion to the role of the rib in Genesis – dreams of breeding a race he calls the Intercostals from these women…

Byron, in trouble with his publishers because of his latest literary innovation (which sounds suspiciously like a variation on The Unfortunates),  decides to let gravity draw him down to Tasmania to meet Emma McGann, who’s been writing him fan mail.  (She may have written to him to correct the myth about there being no Aborigines in Tasmania, but if she did I missed it in the book.  It would make sense (plotwise) if she did and it would also be an allusion to the real B. S, Johnson’s comment, see above).  However that may be, I love this play on the idea of a man in the northern hemisphere being sucked down south by gravity; it made me think immediately of those upside-down maps that challenge the Eurocentric supremacy of conventional maps).  I was also startled by the narrator’s announcement that Tasmania has ‘madness in its name.’ (p73)  Why have I never noticed this before??

Drift  was written pre 9/11, and also before the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre so Castro has a bit of fun with over-zealous Australian authorities in a way that perhaps he might not now.  Byron  is interrogated as a potential terrorist because he once wrote about an explosion in one of his books, and Alberto Angelo (one of the books he’s brought with him, autographed by B.S.J.) is seized by customs because ‘there were holes cut in the pages and they wanted to view the excisions’ (p149).  However, despite their suspicions, Byron, with a credit card balance provided via his ex-wife Ainslie, takes a cruise round the island on an historic ship and at Queenstown meets up with Tom McGann (the albino one)…

Having driven around Tasmania some years ago, I found that my familiarity with its history and geography enhanced my understanding of parts of this section:

  • The poem on page 122 refers to the Model Prison at Port Arthur where corporal punishment was abolished but men were incarcerated in total silence, and hooded so that they could not see any other person when moving around the prison.  They were even shielded by wooden compartments in the chapel to maintain this isolation.   This was intended to be a reform enabling them to reflect on their sins, but many went mad instead.  Julia, on page 124, could not have heard convicts playing Chinese Whispers in their cells because the complex was soundless, so this is one of Castro’s ironies.
  • Queenstown is a town on the south-west coast where uncontrolled mining by the (now defunct) Mt Lyall Mining Co [2]  has completely destroyed the natural environment.  Back in 1990 when I was there (and roughly contemporaneous with when Castro was writing this book) Queenstown was unbelievably bleak even in summer weather and the surrounding hills were completely denuded of trees or any other form of life, creating an eerie ‘moonscape’.  It smelled of sulphur, and the river was stained the colour of tea.  A place less likely to appeal to tourists is hard to imagine, hence the irony of Tom McGann’s stepmother ‘enslaving’ him as an employee in her motel. (p147-8, at the beginning of Part III).  (I see that a somewhat hagiographic entry at Wikipedia describes the town now as having a ‘unique beauty’. )

Somewhere off Stanley on the northern coast, Byron falls overboard in a storm but saves himself by constructing a sort of Mae West out of a pair of bloomers cast by a woman-of-interest from a port-hole.  He comes ashore on an island where Emma McGann is mutton-birding, and ends up being winched off under protest by a rescue helicopter, an event laconically reported in the press thus:

Byron Johnson, avongard [sic] British author was yesterday rescued from a rocky ledge after having fallen off a boat and spending some time in the water.  Mr Johnson, suffering from hypothermia and hallucinations told the Northwestern News he was saved by a pod of whales and a million muttonbirds.  Sgt Bryce of the Stanley constabulary said this was quite common. (p157)

Somewhere up the coast from Sister’s Beach, Tom McGann is living with Byron’s ex-wife Ainslie, soon (to her fury) to be recognisable in his (Byron’s) new novel.  Tom meets up with Byron who has metamorphosed into a black man because (since his rescue) he’s been injecting himself with melatonin, (his reasons not very clear to me, though it has a purpose in the book, see above).  Tom takes Bryan to see Cape Grim where the Aborigines were pursued over the cliffs and into the sea where they were dashed to their deaths on the rocks.  He disappears after that, in a deliberately ambiguous ending.  Did he kill himself, possibly with Emma, or has he vanished, as people sometimes do?

After I’d finished reading the book, I discovered a scholarly essay by Miriam Wei-Wei Loabout ‘hybridity’ in Brian Castro’s novels.  She was exploring what happens when an ‘Asian-Australian writer tackles the representation of Aboriginality’ but I was also interested in her comments about the deliberate ‘chronological incoherence’ which isn’t just the use of flashbacks and flash-forwards (which is not so unusual after all), it’s also the deliberate obscuring of the point in time when the narrative begins in Chapter One.  This is true, but I don’t think it matters very much.  It’s not the time shifts which make the book complex, it’s the ideas behind the novel, which gradually fall into place – though a first reading like mine leaves more to be revealed I am sure.

I really do think that Castro should be a contender for a Nobel Prize.  He is a remarkable author.

[1] See ‘Possible only on Paper?’ a scholarly essay about ‘hybridity’ by Miriam Wei-Wei Loa.
[2] Copper Mines of Tasmania operated there from 1995-9 after which it was taken over by an Indian company un-named on Wikipedia.

Author: Brian Castro
Title: Drift
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2011, first published 1994
ISBN: 9781862549739
Source: Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Direct from Wakefield Press
Fishpond: Drift


  1. That was brave to read the Introduction first, Lisa! I always read them last, but I do always read them. I agree with you about republishing backlist books. It’s really important and hopefully something that e-books may make easier to do. Anyhow, I need to read this book!


    • There are so many beaut books that you and I have enjoyed that our readers can’t access because they’re backlisted. As you say, hopefully the eBook will help, however it may be that the cost of formatting may outweigh potential profits. Maybe print-on-demand may help?


  2. Speaking of Australians contending for Nobel Prizes, did you see the new interview with Murnane over at Dalkey Archive Press?


    • Sorry, not interview, overview. Article. That sort of thing.


      • Thanks, Deane, I’ll check it out at the weekend – I *must* finish writing reports tonight (the ones I was going to finish yesterday *rueful smile*)


  3. oh now you mention Johnson with him I ve got to read it I ve read all Johnsons novels and am a big fan of his work ,so can see me loving this ,all the best stu


    • You might be able to get it as an eBook, Stu, try the link direct to Wakefield.


  4. I’m fortunate enough to live close to a major library chain (Minneapolis Public Library), and they have most of the books of most authors going back to the 1930s. Many of these old, old books are stored in the Stacks, but you can still request them. Although they don’t have Joan London yet, so I put in a request for them to purchase her titles. I suppose some book bloggers look upon using libraries as cheating.


    • Cheating??? Supporting one’s local book repository as cheating? Are they crazy?
      I have hundreds, no, thousands of books here at home, but I belong to two libraries (near work, and near home) and I visit both regularly. I scour around them making serendipitous discoveries, and now that they have OPAC I also use them from home to locate those backlist books that are impossible to buy. The way I see it, blogging is not about being an arm of the publishing industry that helps to sell books – my blogging is about sharing my thoughts about my reading, and the books I read come from multiple sources.
      But even if I didn’t have a pathological need for books, I would still support my local library by visiting it regularly because in times of austerity politicians are forever trying to shut them down – and libraries are crucial resources for disadvantaged people who can’t afford to buy books and equally importantly often need tactful help to find the information they want. Libraries are also a wonderland for such children too – at school I love seeing the faces of the little kids from bookless homes when it first dawns on them that they can borrow one of ‘my’ books and bring it back and swap it for another one. And then when they learn that there’s another library like mine only bigger, just behind the shopping centre, they are ecstatic.
      So my use of libraries is partly political. It’s an act that says, hands-off, you’ll have a fight with me if you-and-your-budget cuts think you can interfere with the love of books and reading here. I fought to save my local library last time we had a penny-pinching state premier and I cannot imagine the people of Melbourne submitting to the closure of libraries they way that’s happened recently in the US and UK.


      • Lisa, I have read this wonderful review three times and have been wanting to comment but find myself so in awe of it (the review and the book) that I am left speechless. Suffice to say, it is illuminating and those of us not gifted with the depth of understanding that you have, are lucky to have someone to pave the way through these more challenging reads.
        I can’t let the chance go by without commenting on your passion for libraries which I share wholeheartedly. I was recently asked by a regional paper to comment on the place of the library in society from the point of view of an author and I was honoured to oblige. The journo also asked me what libraries meant to me as a child and I responded that, through the library, I became aware of the world of knowledge that was available to all of us. Libraries “epitomise a classless Australia which doesn’t dictate who can become well-read and learned”.
        Your description of a library as a “wonderland” for children is perfect.


        • *blush* Thank you for your kind words, Karen, and good on you for spreading the word about libraries!


  5. Yes, Lisa, the United States has the same problem where so many of the so-called politicians are so dumbed down that they want to cut or eliminate libraries. I suppose these dumbed down politicians think that they would be much better off with an ignorant electorate who will vote for them.
    I admire your willingness to fight to save your local library.


  6. […] I’ve read enough of Drift to know that it’s a very special book.  (Update 1.11.11, see my review here) Like the other two novels, it’s complex and daring but enormously rewarding.  Like […]


  7. […] Drift (1994) […]


  8. […] Well, as usual with Castro’s books, I must confess immediately that there must be plenty of allusions that I’ve missed on a first reading but I am not too bothered about that because I know from reading Katharine England’s introduction to Drift (1994) that Castro doesn’t expect his readers to do that.  Quoting here from my own review of Drift: […]


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