On 3 October 1952, Great Britain detonated its first atomic bomb in an old navy frigate, the HMS Plym, anchored in the Montebello Islands off the north-west coast of Australia. Four years later, in 1956, it detonated two more bombs in the Montebello archipelago, fallout from which spread from Western Australia to Queensland’s inland and coastal towns and out over the Pacific as far as Fiji. (Apparently, the scientists who designed the test hadn’t taken account of WA’s strong westerlies.)
The tests were hailed as a scientific success, though for the young Robert Drewe, who was nine years old at the time of the 1952 explosion, they became a source of wonder and dread. Such, indeed, is his fascination with the Montebello archipelago that in 2010 he joined an expedition to survey the fauna living there, the islands having recently become a nature reserve for species threatened by a gas mining project on Barrow Island some twenty kilometres to the south. Montebello is an account of that expedition and an exploration of the various issues – personal and public – to which it forms the backdrop.
Like Drewe’s award-winning memoir The Shark Net (2000), which yoked together family history with an account of a series of brutal murders in Perth’s coastal suburbs in the 1960s, Montebello is a beautifully crafted book. Billed as a memoir, it switches effortlessly between travel literature, reportage, local history, nature writing and film and literature criticism. Its aim is to give the reader a sense not only of the author’s formative influences but also of the natural and man-made events – from shark attacks to the mining boom – to have left their mark on the Western Australian psyche (and of two events – the nuclear tests – which have left less of a mark than they might have done).
Drewe’s method is associative. Thus the boat trip out to the islands sparks a memory of sailing from Melbourne to Perth (in 1949, when Drewe was six), which leads in turn to a memory of the author’s early life in Victoria. Only once does this approach seem forced, in a chapter dealing with the author’s experiences teaching creative writing in a British gaol, the pretext for which is the observation that islands often serve as prisons, and the slightly lame conclusion of which is that all prisons are in one sense islands. Otherwise, it works exceptionally well. The multilayered narrative develops quite naturally, and the recounted experiences are invariably vivid. Moreover, Drewe is a fine judge of tone. Even the most distressing chapters – those dealing, for example, with the death of Drewe’s mother – never descend into ‘misery memoir’, and the book as a whole is given emotional buoyancy by the author’s masterly deployment of bathos. The physical and psychical ramifications of an incident involving a wartime gasmask and the author’s still-developing scrotum are one source of (rather queasy) humour.
As the book progresses, the author’s memories assert themselves more forcefully and the expedition fades into the background. And yet the ‘desert island turned Ark’ persists – an obstinate metaphor for rejuvenation of which Drewe, who when he sets sail for the islands is trying to build a relationship in the wake of three failed marriages, refuses to make too much. Indeed one of the joys of Montebello is the spectacle of its sixty-nine-year-old author attempting to keep his literary weight down in the face of a cornucopia of ripe analogy and delicious coincidence. The opening chapter is a case in point. Holidaying with his youngest daughter in Broken Head, New South Wales, the author’s familial anxieties are figured not only by the monsoonal weather (‘Storm-blown bougainvillea petals were streaming down the windows like gouts of blood’) but also by the presence of a (suspected) brown snake with an obvious flare for melodrama:
The snake is nosing into the doll-house’s second floor. Its coils are tipping over tiny tables and chairs and cupboards and people: little plastic mummies and daddies and children. This is overdoing the imagery. It’s like a Pedro Almodovar film about marriage breakdown.
The second Montebello test was codenamed Operation Mosaic, and it must have occurred to Drewe at some stage to title this dazzling memoir just that. Creating as it does a complex picture out of discrete though related narrative chunks, and dealing as it does with various kinds of physical and emotional fallout, Montebello is a fragmentary book but a perfectly integrated work of art. Drewe’s literary instincts are as impeccable as his ear for the English language is unfaltering, and his latest memoir has all the more force for being set down with such a delicate hand.
Robert Drewe, Montebello: A Memoir
Hamish Hamilton; $29.99; 291pp
First published in The Australian.