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The Drowner

Robert Drewe
Pan MacMillan, 1997. 326pp
ISBN: 0312168217

review by Ann Skea

Will Dance was only "nettle high, thistle high, riding on his father's shoulders" when he learned about drowning. His father, like the mole he shows to Will, and like generations of Dances before him, is a drowner: "an artist, a craftsman, a personage", who knows how to bring water from river to meadow exactly as and when it is needed.

Will, like other young men of his time, prefers science to art. But his medium is water, and his profession as a civil engineer in the early days of the twentieth century takes him from the rich Wiltshire farmland of his childhood to the parched desert of the Western Australian goldfields.

Robert Drewe's central metaphor in this book is water and he controls every aspect of it with the artistry and skill of a true drowner. His language is subtle, fluid and full of reflections, but each short sequence of prose is like a vivid fragment of film in which his characters live and move.

In many ways, Drewe's writing is similar to that of Graham Swift in Waterland and Adam Thorpe in Ulverton. His story of love, passion, madness, death and human frailty is compelling, and his historical settings are full of curious, almost forgotten knowledge.

Drewe's approach is subtle but he draws us realistically into scenes as diverse as Will's Chapel baptism in the English River Avon and his eventual watery meeting with Angelica at Bath, to his typhoid delirium in a sackcloth tent under relentless Australian sun. His characters are striking and unusual but only Angelica's overbearing father, Hammond Lloyd, comes close to caricature as Ham Lloyd the famous actor. Drewe avoids this pitfall by exploring the curious psyches of other characters: like Inez, the well-bred young English woman who arrives to nurse sick miners in the drunken squalor of the goldfields; the dandy, Axel Boehm, who crawls half-a-mile into the earth with his glass photographic plates to photograph miners; and the American poet, Felix Locke, the goldfields undertaker.

Robert Drewe is one of Australia's best writers and The Drowner is an ambitious but beautifully realised creation from an imaginative and seductive story-teller. Not surprisingly, it has already attracted glowing reports from reviewers around the world.

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