Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 13, 2012

Montebello, A Memoir (2012), by Robert Drewe

MontebelloMontebello is a fascinating book which provides more than a little food for thought.  It’s the successor to Robert Drewe’s memoir The Shark Net (which was made into a TV series), and it’s likewise much more than a memoir.

Drewe’s’ islomania’ is the launchpad for a collection of anecdotes that link together his experiences on islands off the Western Australian coast.  Some anecdotes are humorous, others are nostalgic.  From his adolescent discovery of love on Rottnest Island to his reportage of nuclear bomb testing in the Montebello  archipelago, he shares his journeys of love and loss, beauty and danger, naïveté and cynicism.

Having visited Rottnest Island twice as a tourist and failed to fully understand why it is so beloved by everyone in Perth, I was pleased to have its secrets revealed at last.  Just as Schoolies on Australia’s east coast decamp to the Gold Coast to celebrate their freedom and experiment with all kinds of foolish frivolity, so too do young people in the faraway west, decamping to Rottnest Island during Leavers Week to discover love and lust and who knows what else besides.  None of these romantic overtones are obvious to tourists like me who tramp around looking at the historic buildings and the cute little quokkas – because the island is closed to the public while the Leavers have their fun.

I was also most interested to learn about the ferry wars and accompanying sabotage – but was glad I didn’t know about this back then!

But that’s not the only revelation in this intriguing book.  Just as The Shark Net’s catalogue of death and murder revealed a Perth utterly unlike the peacefully sunny city that I visited repeatedly during the 1990s while my son worked there, so Montebello takes us on a journey beyond the sunny tourist brochures to the British nuclear test sites of the 1950s.  As Drewe visits the archipelago with a team of conservationists relocating endangered species he reflects on the extraordinary story of these tests.  Research and interviews reveal that there was scandalous failure to take safety precautions: navy pilots were ordered to fly through the radioactive cloud and collect samples; observers were given not much more than sunglasses and boots if they were given anything at all; and nobody took into account that the prevailing winds blew east.  These revelations fill me with a profound sense of distrust about the decision-makers who approved these tests taking place on Australian soil.  Either they were not told the truth about the risks by the scientists in charge – which is unconscionable; or they chose to ignore it – which is even worse. Either way it is a grave breach of trust to put the lives of so many at risk and then to deny responsibility for the death and disease which has ensued.

Drewe does not, I hasten to add, bang on about this.  It’s part of his story, and for me it was the most interesting part (because I hadn’t known anything about it), but he also writes movingly about his dismay about the breakup of his marriage and his tentative steps towards a new relationship.

I stood at the rail in the cool stillness under the stars and thought of the woman on the mainland and hoped we had a future together.  Other women I’d finally begun to see after the break-up had been jealous of the time I wanted to give my youngest son and daughter.  This one wasn’t: she was warm and welcoming.  The other women, already bruised and needy when we’d met, wanted instantly voiced commitment and firm arrangements to set up new households.  A future occurred to them but not yet to me.

I didn’t blame them but I was unable to make moving-in plans.  I was only capable of a browsing, skimming fondness.  One woman had said abruptly and accusingly, ‘You’re not enchanted with me.’  She was attractive and intelligent and her remark took me aback.  At the time I thought we were ‘seeing’ each other, and enjoying each other’s company.  We were eating calamari and flathead at a beach cafe.  I was watching snappy waves breaking on the sand and imaginative cloud formations over the Nightcap Range and I wasn’t prepared.

I laughed in nervous surprise.  Enchanted?

‘Yes, I am,’ I said.  It was too late.

I was turning such thoughts over in my mind as dawn broke over the ocean and a humpback breached in the low swell.  Where the whale submerged again, the sea arched and rolled in on itself, slippery as mercury.  Then the surface flattened into the quivery sheen of gin, and I wished my long-time friend and new hoped-for lover was sharing the experience.

Perhaps that was a test of enchantment: the wish to share experiences with a specific woman and by doing so turn them into adventures.  The desire to share a whale sighting at sea, a moon-bright deck, a night on the ocean, far from land. (p55)

Superb writing and skilful interweaving of the different strands in this book make it a pleasure to read.  I enjoyed Drewe’s most recent novel, Grace (2005) but I now think I should seek out more non-fiction from his backlist…

©Lisa Hill

Author: Robert Drewe
Title: Montebello
Publisher: Penguin/Hamish Hamilton, 2012
ISBN: 9780670893478
Source: Review copy courtesy of Penguin




  1. I enjoyed ‘The Shark Net’ (a random purchase many years ago!), and this one sounds good too :)


    • He’s got such an entertaining style: you can just imagine sitting out on the deck with a glass of wine on a summer night and listening to him tell his stories…


  2. Fascinating I’m sure. We have had Ferry Wars in the English Channel crossing to France. My relatives in Perth would be interested in it if they were readers (which alas, they are not)


    • Oh thank goodness they built the Chunnel and Eurostar in time for me not ever to have to take a ferry across the channel! I’m a good sailor, but the stories I’ve heard about how rough it is make me grateful I can avoid it LOL.


  3. I read drowner by him many many moons ago in fact think I may still have it so may reread that at some point I did enjoy it ,all the best stu


    • You’re amazing, Stu, you read so widely from the four corners of the globe!


  4. […] rather neglected, an omission which I began to rectify when I recently read his Montebello (see my review).  He has a long list of titles to his credit, including his […]


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