Grace, by Robert Drewe
Books read: 4/26. Weeks remaining: 47
I got this one lining my nest because Robert Drewe’s The Shark Net was a classic that everybody except me, it seemed, had read. True to bibliomaniac form, I got them both, and still haven’t read the The Shark Net.
In my defence, I also love good Australian literary fiction, which I thought this was bound to be, and I love crime thrillers, and was tantalised by the idea of a book straddling these genres.
So that’s why I have it, but clearly it all wasn’t enough to make me actually read it. All these years later I was drawn to it over the other “D” potentials (the shortlist having comprised Don DeLillo, Philip K. Dick and Daphne du Maurier) because it was set in the Kimberley region of WA. Having just spent my honeymoon in the region, this is the closest I can get – at present – to going back there.
The tale is of 29-year-old Grace, named for her archaeologist father’s famous discovery of a gracile skeleton in the Kimberley desert before her birth. Grace is a film reviewer in Sydney, but when a stalker tears apart her relationship, her job and finally threatens her safety, she flees to the remote Kimberley and becomes a crocodile park worker and nature tour conductor.
Her life, as she slowly learns to appreciate it afresh, is once again complicated, this time by the appearance of a refugee. Police failed to round him up after a cyclone facilitated a mass regional detention centre breakout, and he is nearly out of strength from wandering in the outback.
The two try to help each other as the authorities – and Grace’s stalker – close in.
With my lit-fic-crime-thriller comes a healthy and interesting, if unexpected, dose of subjects including beach worms, archaeology, anthropology, history, crocodiles, Aboriginal rituals surrounding the dead, refugee politics, erotomania and film theory. It was clear the author possesses the wide knowledge born of boundless curiosity (and undoubtedly, meticulous research). But it is not immediately clear what the connection between all of these concepts is.
At least part of an answer hits me, though, after an exchange between Grace and her fugitive friend.
“… there were schools of prehistoric fish swimming right where we are now.”
“I would rather hear about crocodiles.”
“ ‘The crocodile kills hungry. It also kills not hungry.’ That’s an Aboriginal saying.”
“It will attack you whether it’s hungry or not?”
“If it’s in the mood. If it’s hungry, of course. If it’s not hungry it might kill you anyway and store you in its larder for later. Or kill you just because it feels like it, because you’re in its territory. Maybe it’s nesting. There’s a famous one that attacks outboard motors – tries to chew them up. It thinks their noise is the courtship bellowing of another male.”
“They like to kill each other, too. The big ones like to eat the smaller ones; the females like to kill the other females – they’re very intolerant animals.”
This is a story of the hunted. Although, in a place like the Kimberley, Grace and the nameless refugee are surrounded by natural predators, they run from their own kind. Even the gracile skeleton for which Grace was named bears the marks of an inexplicably violent burial ritual.
Grace takes tourists on a walk to see turtles laying eggs and, maddened by goannas preying on the vulnerable eggs, the group beats a goanna to death.
In this climate the nights were far busier and more bloodthirsty than the days. Every morning showed evidence of tiny murders. The scuffle marks, the pile of chest feathers, the ball of bloodstained fluff.
After the constant sense of imminent terror Drewe builds, the end, when it comes, is a surprise and a relief.
This novel is confidently written, periodically funny, and seemingly effortless in its style and poise. I am remotivated to read The Shark Net. So I’m calling that success.
Keep or let go? If you love it, let it go. Must practise this. Grace will be a good read for whoever picks it up off that bus stop bench.
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