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.