Book Review: The True Colour of the Sea is a remarkable new collection from Australia’s master of the short form

Fans of Robert Drewe are in for a treat, with his newest collection, The True Colour of the Sea, published late last month by Hamish Hamilton. The eleven stories, all themed around coastal living, the ocean and the Australian fascination with it are all written in Drewe’s signature style. Each one showcases that Robert Drewe remains a master of observation, whether that be in the form of understanding different characters and creating a unique voice for whomever he chooses to inhabit, or in his ability to create settings which come to life in just a few lines.

The collection opens with ‘Dr Pacific’, the story of an octogenarian character adjusting to life after the death of her husband, and musing on the little changes in attitude that accompany the knowledge that you don’t have much longer left to live. It is a piece filled with dark humour, with the story’s narrator making such observations as: “Ever notice that after people pass away, the world seems to have more sunsets than dawns?”, and “At eighty you can choose which insults you respond to.” While on the surface, Bet seems to be coping well, her grief manifests itself in interesting ways, and it seems she is not only mourning the loss of her husband, but also of the world as it used to be.

This sort of sharp psychological insight is evident throughout the book—whether it be in the story about the young Olympic hopeful who gets into strife when he enlists the help of his mother-in-law to shave his entire body in the hopes of increasing his speed in the pool (‘Lavender Bay Noir’), or in the series of emails exchanged between a retired teacher aboard a round the world cruise and the folks back home (‘The Sea Dream Emails’). These two stories are highlights of the collection, both for their stories and for the playfulness they exhibit in genre and style.

There is also a link between this collection, and Drewe’s earlier acclaimed book The Bodysurfers, a book still studied in schools today. For the eagle-eyed reader, a recollection of a Christmas past, made by David Lang as he gathers his family around him may seem oddly familiar. (I won’t spoil the fun, but have your copy of The Bodysurfers nearby, as you may wish to reread it.)

There are many writers in Australia contributing to the excellence that is our short fiction, and with The True Colour of the Sea, Robert Drewe reminds us that he’s still got what it takes, seven novels, four books of short stories, two memoirs and two plays later. While The True Colour of the Sea may not be everyone’s cup of tea—for instance, don’t expect neatly tied up endings or conventional plots structures— it’s a remarkable book, one that is bound to impress his fans and garner him new ones.

 

FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

The True Colour of the Sea is available now through Penguin Books Australia