The True Colour of the Sea
“Dan dropped dead on the sand and that was that.” In the first sentence of the first story in this very enjoyable new collection, Robert Drewe establishes the sea as a place of both death and sly comedy. There is a hoary literary convention of the sea as metaphor; you might even say it has been overfished for allegory. Yet with his narrative inventiveness, and the deft combination of a light touch and dark sensibility, Drewe offers a fresh perspective on oceanic themes – freedom, cleansing and renewal along with their obverse of entrapment, muck and danger. Playful undercurrents and perilous rips of eroticism run through these tales. The sea is a moody and sensuous beast.
The 11 stories in The True Colour of the Sea are salty with satire. Drewe can seem to be drawing his bow at easy targets: tourists who insist on calling themselves travellers; big-noting, name-dropping young artists who haven’t a clue as to how excruciating they are; passengers on cruise ships who consider themselves superior to other passengers on cruise ships. Typically, they consider themselves better than others; if there’s a lesson the sea can teach anyone, it’s humility. But Drewe, one of Australia’s most critically regarded authors, is too intelligent a writer for simple lessons. Just when you think you know where he’s taking you, the winds shift, and off you sail to an unforeseen destination.
The stories are set on, by or near the sea, on coasts around Australia, at a Cuban beach resort, a cruise ship off Central America, and in one of my favourites, “Another Word for Cannibal”, on an imaginary Pacific Island, Okina. Okina is where the protagonist, Damian, an IT worker from Sydney, has come to meet the descendants of the people who killed and ate his great-great-great-grandfather. Mirages shimmer on actual and emotional horizons; people see things they don’t or shouldn’t see: did Damian’s wife really just disappear with that semi-naked cannibal heir?
The eponymous story is at once a terrifying tale of abandonment and gratuitous cruelty, a story of self-importance and just deserts, and an allegory of the plight of the artist in a venal world. It sees its young pretentious painter abandoned on an island in the Arafura Sea, starving and malnourished, yet still valiantly struggling to re-create the “true colour” of the sea. As this collection shows, the sea has more than one “true colour”. CG
Hamish Hamilton, 224pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 28, 2018 as "Robert Drewe, The True Colour of the Sea ". Subscribe here.