Review: Grace by Robert Drewe

Back in the late 1980s, Tom Wolfe, the author of Bonfire of the Vanities, wrote an essay titled "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast" in which he called for, amongst other things, a return to the big social novel that explored the realities of American life. He wanted American novelists to relate to what was happening in their country, to document and comment on the "big stuff" rather than the small introverted domestic events. It seemed like a reasonable call to arms at the time.

I don't remember there being anything similar here in Australia. Then again I may well have missed it. In any event, recent "commentaries" - essays and reviews - have shown a similar call coming from various voices in the country. On the one hand we have reviewers lamenting the number of literary novels dealing with issues from Australia's history: "get more up to date" they seem to be saying. And on the other hand, we have reviewers such as Melinda Harvey in her review of The Garden Book by Brian Castro (see here), praising the book for being able to look "our nation directly in the face without a single reference to the three 'Rs' - reconciliation, republicanism and refugees." She wants gutsy storytelling that tackles current issues but which doesn't deal with subjects she's sick of - the three Rs. She's not going to be too happy with Grace by Robert Drewe then.

In this novel, Drewe does look the current state of the Australian nation directly in the face, telling a compelling story, and dealing with such diverse subjects as: reconciliation, inner-city versus country divides, eco-tourism, refugees and government immigration policies, the history of human settlement of the Australian continent, soft crime versus hard crime, and commercialization versus conservation. It's a big list.

In her recent review of the novel in "Overland", Lucy Sussex thinks it's too big, that each of the subjects warranted detailed individual treatment. I agree with the second part of that, and, in the hands of a lesser novelist than Drewe, I'd probably agree with the first part as well.

The novel follows Grace Molloy as she flees her job as a film reviewer after becoming the victim of a rather creepy stalker. She ends up in the Kimberley region of Western Australia working as a tour guide in the area and as an attendant at a local wildlife park. During her stay there is a mass break-out from the local immigration detention centre, and one of the escapees comes across Grace out in the bush. She takes him in and helps him escape with the help of a local nunnery. Her father, John Molloy, is a world famous anthropologist who discovered, many years earlier also in the Kimberley, the skeleton of a small girl which he dates as being between 30 and 60 thousand years old. He named the skeleton Grace, the name he was subsequently to give his daughter. At the time of the novel he is still fighting to legitimise his dating of the skeleton and working on the repatriation of the remains to the local indigneous community for re-burial.

Taken blandly like that, the plot of the novel reads like a hodge-podge of current Australian political, scientific and societal issues thrown together haphazardly. Luckily for us the final result is like a fine-tuned recipe, with all the ingredients fitting together seamlessly to form a whole that is satisfying and elegant.

This is an excellent novel. Long, but not too long at 415 pages. The only quibble I might have with it concerns the knot-tieing of the stalker thread, the initial crime that sets the novel's flow in motion and which hangs behind the action with continual menace. Don't get me wrong, the final knot is tied, and tied firmly. But it takes the emotional rather than the action-driven option at the end. If a film is ever made of this novel, I suspect a rather different, more bloody ending will make it on screen. Somewhere in between might be the better path.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on February 16, 2006 12:57 PM.

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