Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 9, 2019

The True Colour of the Sea, Stories (2018) by Robert Drewe

Prompted by this collection’s shortlisting for the prestigious Colin Roderick Award, I’ve just spent a blissful couple of hours reading some of the stories in Robert Drewe’s The True Colour of the Sea.  I haven’t read them all because I’m also half way through Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island—and anyway, I don’t like to read a short story collection all in one go, if I’m going to read short stories at all, I like to dip into them over time.

Of those I’ve read, I liked ‘Another Word for Cannibals’ best.  Yes, this choice reveals something about my macabre sense of humour…

The unlikely premise of the story is a reunion between the descendants of a Methodist minister, and the offspring of the cannibal ancestors of those who ate him.  Drewe has mischievously named his fictional Pacific island Okina, which Wikipedia tells me is a glottal stop in Hawaiian languages, denoting ‘uh-oh’.  ‘Uh-oh’ indeed.  Through the auspices of a Leeds academic who also shares this rarest of ancestral links, Damian and Lisa have been invited to attend a special 150th anniversary ceremony to make amends to the Horne descendants.  

Drewe is adept at describing a certain type of woman:

Damian and Lisa had met Jennifer only once before, at a family wedding in North London, and remembered her as a wiry extrovert with reckless scarlet hair and a sort of ethnic-Victorian dress style, a mixture of tinkling bracelets and fingerless net gloves.  (p.21)

One suspects that a refusal to participate was not a possibility.  In response to the understandably ignorant questions of the descendants, Jennifer explains:

In any society or culture, in whatever period of history, everything we humans do rests on the assumptions we share with our family, friends, neighbours and workmates,’ she’d replied.

‘Everything social is open to question, including solidly held beliefs and ideas about karma, the self in society and nature and culture. Only by relating uncritically to the different versions of the world can we be fully human.’ (p. 22)

Lisa’s not quite convinced.

‘Is she lecturing us that cannibalism is okay in some circumstances?  That if we’re against killing people and eating them then we aren’t fully human?’

‘Grandpa Isaac might beg to differ,’ Damian had said.  ‘Frankly, I thought this was one case where we weren’t the bad guys.’ (p. 22)

Poor naïve Damian! He’s not impressed when Jennifer explains that an element of exchange is required:

‘Reconciliation is very important to the Okinian ethos.  But ‘making amends’ isn’t the whole point.  ‘Saying sorry’ is part of it, but reconciliation ceremonies require something from each side.’ (p. 22)

Drewe has some fun with the concepts of cultural relativity:

Exchange? ‘So they entertain us in a big way, say sorry for eating him, and then want something from us in return?  Some sort of swap?’ Damian said. ‘Maybe we should remind them that our team is already one member down.’

Not worth getting upset about, though.  Isaac’s fate was macabre and tragic, but it had made for an extraordinary family legend, not to mention unbeatable dinner-party conversation.  Black humour in spades.  Of course cannibal jokes were bad form these days.  Cannibals were the stuff of old cartoons and comic strips.  Chubby cannibals wearing chef’s hats and bones in their noses.  Pith-helmeted explorers simmering in big cooking pots.

Everyone drew a polite veil over bloodthirsty bygone practices.  Keep shtum about headhunters.  Don’t mention Michael Rockefeller’s mysterious disappearance.  (p.23)


Janine from The Resident Judge of Port Phillip has read the whole collection. See her review here.

Author: Robert Drewe
Title: The True Colour of the Sea
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House, 2018, 212 pages
ISBN: 9780143782681
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh $29.99

Available from Fishpond: The True Colour of the Sea



  1. […] The True Colour of the Sea (Robert Drewe, Hamish Hamilton), (short stories, on my TBR, see my review) […]

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting. The minister’s descendants don’t seem to consider what he was doing over there – a missionary perhaps? Not entirely unintrusive or neutral. Enjoy the rest of the collection. I like to dip, too: am about halfway through John Cheever’s Complete Stories, started several years ago!


      • Oh they do consider it, but I think they weigh whether the punishment fits the crime.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I think the title story is absolutely marvellous.


    • Ooh Carmel *wink* you like the macabre ones too!


  3. This is exactly the kind of book that would appeal to me. The dark humour is intriguing. Enjoyed this review. I didn’t know Robert Drew had this sense of humour. I remember those cartoons. There were quite a few of cannibal cartoons I remember from my childhood. They were always pygmys too.


  4. I wouldn’t eat people because I don’t eat meat, but I can see why some people might. And if an annoying missionary was just begging for it, well why not?


    • Ha ha Bill, I can tell when you’re trying to get a rise out of me!


  5. On my list!


  6. […] Adelaide, see my review • The True Colour of the Sea (Penguin Random House) by Robert Drewe, see my review • The Drover’s Wives (Brio) by Ryan […]


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