Non­fic­tion

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Is­lo­ma­nia, was not, in the mind of the young Robert Drewe, an af­flic­tion. Is­lands had al­ways held a spe­cial fas­ci­na­tion for him, from the cast­away sto­ries he favoured as a boy to his dis­cov­ery as a teenager of Rot­tnest Is­land, scene of swim­ming and se­duc­tion.

It is an­other is­land, or group of is­lands, which pro­vide the pivot point for this mem­oir, billed as a se­quel to The Shark Net, pub­lished to great ac­claim in 2000. The Mon­te­bello Is­lands, off the Pil­bara coast of WA, were the site of three nu­clear bomb tests by the British in the 1950s. The first, on Oc­to­ber 3, 1952, was as pow­er­ful as the bomb that oblit­er­ated Hiroshima. In 1956, there were two more blasts, one of which was five times big­ger than Hiroshima’s.

“Ever since I was nine-year­sold, the Mon­te­bello Is­lands had alarmed me,” writes Drewe. He re­calls his mother or­der­ing him home straight af­ter school be­cause the tests scared her.

Able Sea­man Patrick Cover­ley, now in his 80s, was there for the first blast. “On the day the bomb was ex­ploded we were wear­ing the usual shorts and toe­less san­dals – no shirts, hats, sun­glasses,” he tells Drewe.

With a group of sci­en­tists, Drewe spent a week on the is­lands help­ing to track the progress of en­dan­gered na­tive an­i­mals, moved there from Bar­row Is­land to es­cape the Gor­gon gas project. His hope was that the visit would pro­vide

Mon­te­bello: A mem­oir Robert Drewe, Hamish Hamil­ton, $29.99 him with the cre­ative spark he needed for the book to fol­low The Rip, his sec­ond col­lec­tion of short fic­tion. The Mon­te­bel­los rep­re­sented the two key pre­oc­cu­pa­tions of his life so far, he tells us – the threat of nu­clear an­ni­hi­la­tion and the frag­ile global econ­omy “so in­tri­cately bound up with the en­vi­ron­ment. . .”

Al­though there’s ab­sorb­ing de­tail about the tests and the state of the Mon­te­bel­los to­day, as well as amus­ing anec­dotes about the writer’s ef­forts to as­sist the sci­en­tists, there is much else be­sides. Drewe takes us back to his child­hood, the sud­den death of his mother, to his ca­reer as a jour­nal­ist and his move into writ­ing fic­tion. He re­vis­its Cottes­loe beach, scene of his fan­tasies as a young re­porter of wit­ness­ing a shark at­tack.

That ado­les­cent am­bi­tion proved prophetic, he writes. The at­tack that took the life of a swim­mer in 2000, just af­ter the pub­li­ca­tion of The Shark Net, pro­vides fresh im­pe­tus for his anx­i­ety. “The at­tack not only shook me up, it changed the or­der of things,” he writes. “I felt my se­cure world knocked askew.”

Drewe knits the past and the present, com­bin­ing his­toric de­tail with per­sonal re­flec­tions that are fre­quently funny and oc­ca­sion­ally mov­ing into an el­e­gant and deeply sat­is­fy­ing whole. Ev­ery bit as good as The Shark Net, Mon­te­bello makes you want to go back to the be­gin­ning.

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