Book Review by Robin Osborne
Well-known local author Robert Drewe (Our Sunshine, The Drowner, The Shark Net etc) delivered the keynote Thea Astley address at the recent Byron Bay Writers Festival to an audience comprising a sampling of what the title of his latest work dubs “the local wildlife” of the Northern Rivers.
Not that being a senior – like the author, and this reviewer – precludes one from being a quirky, even outrageous character, but it’s a fair bet that few in the audience can match any of the characters he describes here.
Take the story he was told shortly after moving to the area. A mango-farmer neighbour – “a laconic, red-bearded Queenslander with basal-cell carcinomas stippling his face” - came over for a barbecue and said, “The last time I sat at this table there was a naked woman lying on it covered in chocolate.
“She had strawberries stuck on her body. You were supposed to lick her on arrival.”
Apparently the previous occupant, Marguerite, had run a tantric free-for-all where, as Drewe, comments, “there was no spiritually delayed gratification whatsoever.”
A year later, as guest writer at a local book club, the author takes questions from the female audience, including where was he living.
“Actually,” I confide to the woman sitting next to me, a grey-haired boutique owner, “our house used to be a tantric brothel.”
After mentioning the chocolate-covered woman on the barbecue table and the wife swapping, Drewe was told, “Talk about coincidence, I must have slept in your bedroom,” and then hears a call across the restaurant: “Marguerite, you’ll never guess who’s living in your old house.”
While the Northern Rivers wildlife also encompasses cane toads, ticks, ants, dung beetles, echidnas, swamp hens and more, the humans clearly have the most appeal.
Take Brendan, the farmer who brings a mail-order bride from Belarus, and then hooks up with her mother – a seemingly long tale made into three of the sixty short stories in this uproarious collection.
Then there’s young Nathan, a local newspaper reporter who catches the travel bug, wanting to become a foreign correspondent and wear “shirts that seem busy, with epaulettes, and pockets on the sleeves to hold pens and notebooks and unfiltered cigarettes and Swiss army knives and condoms and surreptitious US dollars for officialdom emergencies.”
He decides to go to Nepal to cover the Maoist rebellion, but in Calcutta succumbs to stomach illness so acute that he must return to Australia.
Back home, his GP, “with many a Himalayan trek behind him,” prescribes a “sure-fire remedy for any Asian intestinal problem… The resulting semi-liquid was chalky and pumice-colored and tasted like plaster of Paris.”
Five days later, so gummed up he could hardly shuffle, he attends hospital only to find that the answer lies in enemas delivered by “his two former high-school crushes, the now worldly district nurses Janelle Hammond and Kelly Schulz.”
Presumably Nathan went back to the local paper, “a dreamlike world of savage feuds, ferocious potential libels, weird occupations, right-left extremes, elfin make-believe and letter-to-the-editor writers called Rainbow Lily, Magenta Apple-Pye and Zeus.”
The paper typifies a place “with a stringent police breathalyser squad and the highest number of annual drink-driving convictions in NSW,” where, as Drewe notes: “The man with the already two-year-suspended licence caught last month riding an unregistered and uninsured motorcycle 100 km/h over the speed limit, while four times over the alcohol limit himself, and carrying a suitcase of cannabis, was tempting even the rainforest’s fickle fates.”
Local wildlife, indeed.
* Robert Drewe’s Thea Astley Lecture at the Byron Bay Writer’s Festival