Several years ago I read The Shark Net, Robert Drewe’s memoir of growing up in Perth in the 1950s and 60s and was favorably impressed with it as you can see from the linked post about it. Now at last I’ve listened to one of his novels. After all, it is Australian and New Zealand Literature Month.
The novel opens in rural Britain, perhaps in the 1880s, when Will Dance is a child and his father is beginning him to teach him the skill of being a drowner, one who controls water, an important skill in their agricultural village. Will grows up and leaves behind his father’s skill for an engineering degree, continuing to work with water.
Water dominates this novel and is present in more ways than you could imagine. Will falls in love with an actress/masseuse in Bath (of course) named Angelica. She was named for the angelica plant which grew near the river bank where she was conceived. Her father is Hammond Lloyd, a famous Shakespearean actor who is not prepared to give up his daughter. Ophelia’s watery suicide comes up more than once.
Will is offered a job in Western Australia on a project to send water uphill from near the sea to the goldfields. Their long journey from England includes crossing Africa by train with a visit to the Victoria Falls, not to be missed if you have a thing for water. Angelica contracts malaria and seems to lose herself even when she comes through the fever. In the malaria wards there are people who reproduce the sounds of each patient’s home river.
In the rough and ready gold mining town (Kalgoorlie?) Angelica takes up opium and introduces Will to it as well. Typhoid (thanks to bad water) is rampant and we are introduced to some of the characters of the town: the undertaker whose hands will never be clean enough in the eyes of women to touch them; Inez, a kindly young woman whose long time companion, a photographer, was revealed to be a woman upon death, much to everyone’s surprise.
Ham turns up in Australia and shoots Will in the hand, just as he was opening a door to the room where Angelica was. Several years pass as Will recovers from his gunshot wound, gives up opium, survives typhoid, and completes the project to bring water uphill to the desert. Ham and Angelica have arrived as part of the celebration of the arrival of water in the goldfields. Will meets his daughter Ada, who has an affliction called Angelman’s disease which leaves her a happy child who cannot walk. Ada’s happiest time is in the bath with Ham. The novel ends as Will saves Ada from being drowned by Ham, who does not survive the event.
Listening to this complex novel meant I missed many nuances I am sure. On the other hand it was lovely to hear and it flowed by effortlessly. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.) Before I listened to it, I read it described as a love story. Whatever it was, it was not just a love story. A water-obsessed book seems only natural in a country surrounded by water with a big desert in the middle and water issues everywhere.
Robert Drewe, The Drowner, St Martin’s Press, 1997, 329 pages (I listened to the audiobook). It is available at the UVa library and from Amazon.