I feel Robert Drewe should be more famous than he is. Perhaps not quite Peter Carrey famous, but at least he should be more well recognised around the world than he currently seems to be. When it comes to my favourite Australian short story writer, he probably even nudges ahead of Cate Kennedy, whom I write about quite a bit on this blog. I would say there might be a gender bias there in my selecting Drewe ahead of Kennedy. I am a man (despite my girlish name), and Drewe’s main characters are mostly men, therefore, I find the characters more relatable for me (I realise this reasoning is unenlightened).
The Aquarium at Night: that’s what the main character, Dyson thinks the prison he is in looks like. He is in England, having been caught entering the country with 4 ectasy tablets he’d forgotten about in his surf bag. He is waiting for the authorities to work out if they want to charge him with trafficking or possession, a time consuming process. In B-wing, he uses his two hours of free time each day to attend a writing class. At night, in his cell, he writes down memories from his boyhood growing up on the Australian coast.
Oswald, a long-term convicted murderer, keeps peace in the writing class. When Oswald is transferred to a medium security prison however, some gang members come in and make trouble for class. Dyson confronts them and tells them to get out. He knows by doing so, he will have to watch his every move for the rest of his time in prison, but he has weighed it up, and realised, the class means more to him than the risks he will now face.
Robert Drewe stories speak of Australia’s love of the water. Australia is an island nation, and the coast plays a symbolic role, if not literal role in many of his character’s lives. In his collection, The Rip, each of the 13 stories has an aspect of water, or the ocean as a major theme. This theme tends to hold true in Drewe’s other story collections as well.
Most writers seem to return again and again to a particular theme. In it, they wrestle with a concept that they can never truly capture. Each story is another attempt at reaching some sort of definitive explanation, but there concept is mercurial. Just as Annie Proulx returns again and again to the setting of ranch life in Wyoming, Drewe keeps returning to the coast. He’s attempts at trying to capture it are exquisite.