I CAN hear the conversation. The Australian novelist Robert Drewe is sitting opposite his publisher. Drewe has already penned four well-received novels. His short stories are considered exceptional. What was the distinguished writer going to do next? Drewe shuffles in his seat. But his publisher has an idea: "What about a memoir?"
All this is imaginary. But it is not absurd. Many well-known writers have chosen to abandon a genre in which they are established for the risky realm of memoir. Whereas the novel was once regarded as the proper pinnacle of a writer's career, slowly the memoir is taking its place.
The Shark Net is a simple story of a boy growing up during the Fifties and Sixties in a middle-class home in Perth, West Australia. Drewe's father worked as a manager for Dunlop, believing in it as if were a religion. Their home was a "celebration of rubber", filled with objects shaped like Dunlop tyres - from cigarette lighters to drinks trays.
The ice-cube tray froze water into little dimpled Dunlop golf balls, to add to the Martini jug shaped like a Dunlop golf bag. The framed watercolour prints on the walls were the best selection from the annual Dunlop calendars. "We knew that to have Clark desert boots or a Goodyear tyre or a Spalding tennis ball was a crime somewhere between treason and sacrilege," writes Drewe.
The bulk of the book slumbers in the safety of this Australian suburbia. And it is here, amid the everyday paraphernalia of hoses in the front garden and golf bags in the boot, that The Shark Net is best. There is a pathetic poignancy in the everyday. When Drewe's Establishment father is picked up by the police for drink-driving and taken ignominiously home, he offers the officers a drink and launches into his sales pitch: "I know Goodyear supplies the police force at the moment... but we'd be more competitive... Tyres, batteries, flooring, footwear, mattresses, sporting goods."
This is not the stuff of deep, dark traumas, and The Shark Net struggles to take this Tupperware tale and make more of it. I can hear, perhaps, the second half of my imaginary conversation. "Something interesting must, surely, have happened to you," says the publisher, and Drewe drags up a faint memory of a serial killer to satisfy the need to transform an ordinary exposition of adolescence into something more menacing.
The killer was Eric Cooke, who killed at least six people, two of whom Drewe knew. Drewe attempts to draw our attention to this. But, however hard he tries to make them part of his own life, the murders gently rattled his suburban comfort only from afar. Neither illuminating nor necessary, they detract from the fabulous, claustrophobic atmosphere of the childhood home.
Drewe must fall back on the ordinary to give The Shark Net meaning. And the ordinary can, of course, be very special. Its smallness can tell us something sweeping and huge.
Whether Drewe's catalogue of 1950s Australian suburbia reveals such greater truths is uncertain. When he next visits his publishers, let's hope he leans across the desk and says: "What about another novel?"Reuse content