Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 30, 2013

The Local Wildlife, by Robert Drewe #BookReview

The Local WildlifeRobert Drewe is a major Australian author who I’ve 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 novels

  • The Savage Crows,
  • A Cry in the Jungle Bar,
  • The Bodysurfers
  • Fortune
  • The Bay of Contented Men
  • Our Sunshine,
  • The Drowner (which I read and didn’t much like in 2002, but I now think that was probably my fault not his)
  • Grace (which I read and did like in 2006)
  • The Rip, and

a stack of non-fiction titles including a prize-winning memoir, The Shark Net.

His latest publication is a collection of sketches and anecdotes drawn from his life in the Northern Rivers region.  As the blurb says, these brief pieces read like Tall Tales but they are all apparently based on Drewe’s observations, proving once again that the sleepy conformity of Australian country towns masks all kinds of weird and wonderful people.

To be truthful, many of these pieces read like the sort of thing one occasionally reads in the ‘funny columns’ sections of weekend newspapers.  They celebrate eccentricity, oddity and the exotic, and the style of writing – if not exactly exaggerated – does ramp up the weird and strange.  If I am to continue to be truthful, I must admit that they wore a bit thin after a while and I haven’t read them all.  But that’s not a criticism, because I don’t think this collection is meant to be read in a single sitting.  Like those newspaper columns, (and the more serious Charmian Clift collection of newspaper essays that I read a while ago, see my review) , these pieces are meant for dipping into, over breakfast, over coffee, in a waiting room or (if you are an outdoor sort of person which I’m not) perhaps between swims at the beach or runs at a cricket match…

All serious writers keep a notebook where they jot down ideas, characters, settings and so on, and I suspect that this collection has its origin in such a notebook.   But some of the characters deserve a novel of their own, I think …

In ‘Marguerite’, Drewe relates how he discovered when he hosted his first BBQ in his new home that it used to be a tantric brothel. (No, I don’t know what a tantric brothel is, or why it involves chocolate-covered ladies but I have a bad feeling that the spam I get here at ANZ LitLovers from now onwards is going to make it clear to me.)  Anyway:

Twelve months on, and I’m the guest writer at a local book club.  Twenty sedate-looking women in their forties have selected a book of mine as their literary discussion choice.  We meet in the private room of a smart restaurant, eat and drink, and after dinner the literary questions begin.

The women are polite and charming, keen readers all.  One woman has brought along her newborn daughter.  Frankly, I don’t mind being the only male present, and despite the potential for competition from the baby, now contentedly nursing at the breast, the centre of attention.

As always happens after wine, the book club soon moves on to non-book matters.  Forget the literary stuff, they want domestic details.  ‘Well, I moved up here last year, ‘ I say.  I mention the area, the street.  ‘Actually,’ I confide to the woman sitting next to me, a grey-haired boutique owner, ‘our house used to be a tantric brothel.’

I’m enjoying this.  I tell the grey-haired woman about the chocolate-covered woman on the barbecue table.  I mention the wife-swapping parties.  I’m non-judgemental but I imply I’m above such sordid high-jinks.

The grey-haired woman sips her drink and hears me out. Eventually she says, languidly, ‘Talk about coincidence, I must have slept in your bedroom.’  As this sinks in, she motions to the nursing mother at the quieter end of the restaurant table. The mother looks up serenely, discreetly tucks in her breast and burps the baby.

The grey-haired woman calls across the restaurant, ‘Marguerite, you’ll never guess who’s living in your old house!’

Robert Drewe, The Local Wildlife, Penguin, 2013, p 6-7.

Thinking of Rosalie Ham’s runaway success The Dressmaker, I think that Marguerite deserves a bigger place in literary history than these brief paragraphs.  I fancy that she and the lonely bachelor from ‘The Fish Taxidermist’ belong together, but that ‘grey-haired woman’ needs to be involved somehow, perhaps as a matchmaker?

I would, however, recommend that if the perils outlined in ‘Rainforest Hygiene’ are anything to go by (i.e. worms dangling from the dining-room ceiling) – the publisher of any such novel take protective clothing and industrial strength insect repellent if invited to discuss options with Mr Drewe!
Author: Robert Drewe
Title: The Local Wildlife
Publisher: Penguin, 2013
ISBN: 9781926428482
Source: Review copy courtesy of Penguin Australia
Availability

Fishpond: The Local Wildlife


Responses

  1. Nice review Lisa … this is a book I’d rather like to read. Drewe doesn’t quite get enough attention in Australian literary circles I think, and perhaps that’s because he hasn’t really settled into one or even two forms – novels, short stories, memoirs, articles etc. And yet, I do find his writing captivating. I’ve been pottering along with The body surfers for some time now and it’s rather delicious.

    • I’ve read quite a few more of his pieces now (I have the book on the dining-table) and am really enjoying them. There’s an hilarious one where he satirises a very thick-skinned couple who ‘drop in to stay’ … I loved it!

      • Oh oh, you’re convincing me I need to read it but the piles, the piles …


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