On ‘Grace’, by Robert Drewe

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THE ‘SOCIAL REALIST novel’ that Robert Drewe quite deliberately set out to write with Grace could have sunk under the weight of its own ideas, were it not for the thriller foil the story is wrapped in. Grace Molloy, the protagonist, is on the run from a crazed erotomanic stalker, whom she refers to as ‘the Icelander’. Grace is the daughter of an anthropologist, and named after the famous discovery that her father John Molloy made of ‘the first modern woman’, a skeleton he named ‘Grace’ for its ‘gracile’ form. This isn’t just a thriller; Drewe is musing over the birth of humanity itself, and the movement of people across the earth. He poses complex questions that don’t arrive at answers, but in a culture that often hides behind euphemisms – that refugees are ‘boat people’, for example – and is still struggling to come to terms with ideas of belonging, just to pose the questions has power.

Grace encompasses settings and characters that at first seem disparate. Grace, the living protagonist, is at home in the seedier suburbs of Sydney. Contrasted with the city is the sparkling harbor, and within it is Lion Island, where Grace lived as a baby. The setting shifts between this seedy, sparkling city and the shimmering salt flats of the desert Kimberley region, along with a fetid, bougainvillea-infested, tropical coastal town in the north of Western Australia. Drewe evokes each setting viscerally. He writes of Grace, holed up in this town in the north-west: ‘The landscape loomed sensually around her. You could almost see and hear things growing. The palm fronds, the bougainvillea spikes, the mould on the deckchair canvas. Suddenly even the words for her surroundings had a taste and smell – guava, tamarind, papaya, pomelo.’ All of these settings eventually tangle together to reveal Drewe’s grand, sweeping thematics.

At first, Lion Island might seem like a distraction – an unnecessary divergence – but Drewe uses it to reveal a microcosm of prejudice: he shows us the fear of the other. Lion Island is caught in a strange, liminal place between city and sea. Grace’s father reveres the landscape here with a kind of mysticism. The tide is a bringer of omens: one day the beach is full of green capsicums, supermarket fresh; on another the bloated, pale form of a dead dog is washed in by the tide, right up onto the lawn. It is here, on this little island, that Drewe turns his torch on the provincialism of small-town Australia. It’s not racism, but localism. John Molloy is the outsider – the other – with his beard and his reading on the ferry. How dare he marry onto the island, what a sneaky trick, think the locals. A type of queue jumping, you could say? The locals on the island reveal an ugliness that is largely missing from the interactions that an escaped detainee – the other main thread of the novel – has with everyday Australians who, bar very few, treat him with the utmost care and respect. It is only here, on Lion Island, in the depths of white Australia that Drewe allows himself to face the attitudes that may have resulted in the barbaric system this detainee is running from.

Grace was written during a specific period in Australian history – immediately after the Tampa affair, where in August 2001 the Howard government refused entry to Australian waters of a Norwegian freighter carrying 438 rescued refugees. This was closely followed in October by the infamous Children Overboard affair. These events were deeply felt across the Australian cultural psyche. In Grace, 398 refugees are left to drown by Australian authorities, after their unseaworthy vessel fails on its journey from Indonesian to Australian shores. Only forty-five survive to life in detention, in the deserts of Western Australia. One of these forty-five escapes – a teenage boy whom Grace calls Leo, on account of his Leonardo DiCaprio-esque fringe and his obsession with the film Titanic. The boy, himself a survivor of a sunken vessel, seems to identify with this other disaster, as it is romanticised in the film.

Drewe says of Grace, when he spoke to Romona Koval on Radio National in 2005:

I guess the overriding theme is one of territory. I tried to think both of impingements on territory in a global way or in a national way. Some people would see boat people arriving as impingements on our territory. And then I thought that the human essence of territory is when someone’s personal space and safety is being threatened, when their personal territory is being put under threat on a 24-hour basis, and that is the case… I then thought, when does that happen? That is when someone is being stalked… 

We see this theme of ‘territory’ played out on a national scale, through the detention centre escapee. His body is one of the few things he has any control over; it is his only territory. He can define it by styling his fringe or he can make a horrifying statement by sewing his lips shut to go on a hunger strike. At one point Leo explains to Grace – and by degrees, to us as readers – the technicalities of how to go about sewing lips shut: ‘The thread hurts more than the needle. Pulling the cotton through the flesh makes your whole body shiver.’ Drewe draws Grace and Leo together, two unlikely characters who have a great deal in common: both of them on the run, both of them lacking a safe territory, both of them stranded in one way or another.

At points it seems as though many of the characters have at one time been sunk, stranded and washed against a foreign shore. In a Lion Island scene, from John Molloy’s point of view, we see a ferry crash into a sandbank in the harbour with an infant Grace and her mother, Molloy’s wife, aboard. In the accident, Molloy’s wife abandons the child and Molloy swims out to the beached ferry where he is stranded, with Grace, as the tide rises. There is a stark contrast here: these two will be saved, lifted from the rising waters, whereas when Leo recounts his own experience he describes a terrifying scene where large naval ships circle the survivors of the sunk boat, shine torch lights in their faces, and then simply move away, leaving the refugees to drown.

The ships came to about two hundred metres from us. Close enough that their engines disturbed the water and made waves over us. In one voice we all screamed so they would hear us: ‘Please help! Please help!’ We blew whistles, too, and yelled out and waved at them. Their lights were shining on us. They could see us. There were so many of us, it was impossible, they didn’t hear us, too. We couldn’t believe they weren’t rescuing us. 

Molloy, in a deeper layering of Drewe’s theme, was a British orphan shipped out to Australia. Any record of his past was erased and he recounts his own horrific sea journey. He too has been stranded. Drewe makes imaginative connections between his disparate plot lines. He evokes in the reader the question of what it means for a past to be erased – Molloy’s past, Leo’s past, Australia’s indigenous past – and what it means for the past to be dredged up. The discovery of ‘the first modern woman’ was also the robbing of a grave, the desecration of sacred site.

The unpacking of the ideas behind the surface plot of Grace may make it seem like this novel is a joyless thing, heavy with rhetoric, but in fact it’s the opposite: it is light with humour and rich with observation. Grace runs from Sydney to a job at Crocodile Gardens, a wildlife park in the Kimberley, in an attempt to escape the Icelander. She has what it takes to be a park ranger: she looks good in shorts. Drewe takes this setting as the perfect opportunity to satirise Australian life, and the Australian man. This is most apparent in the descriptions of Grace’s co-worker Brett Stroller, who ostensibly takes her to the mudflats to teach her mud-crabbing. Grace, not normally a fan of the ‘outdoor male’, finds herself entranced by his shirtless body, tanned skin and knowledge of mangrove species. But Brett falls into cliché, tossing his wet hair in an arc of spray and trying to impress her by flinging a small, harmless shark away. It’s all very tongue-in-cheek. Drewe also satirises the ‘travellers’ that make their way through the wildlife park, describing German tourists as being kitted up like Swiss army knives. The ‘Grey Wanderers’ don’t escape Grace’s observational eye either, and she describes them with resulting hilarity: ‘Today’s clients exposed paper-white thighs, calves, ankles, feet and arms. Rather than travellers, they were human road maps. Their bodies’ highways and byways and delicate red and purple overpasses – even mysterious greenish winding lanes.’ Throughout, there is also a looking-at-a-car-crash kind of compulsion behind the many references to crocodiles and their victims. In the park itself, crocodiles are named after the victims that resulted in their incarceration – Gunter, for example, after the Swiss backpacker he nibbled upon.

This satirising sits a little at odds with the behind-the-scenes of Crocodile Gardens. Drewe balances lightness with the dark. He juxtaposes the smiling face of the outback wildlife park with tubs of mutant crocodiles, those missing tails and legs – crocodiles that would have died in the wild, but in the dank breeding pools of the park have been allowed to survive. Grace sees the crocodiles in each stage of their life – from a swarm of tiny, wriggling hatchlings to stench-ridden carcasses, slaughtered for their valuable skins and destined for the gift shop. Grace meets these crocs again in the form of the leather belts and handbags she sells to ‘travellerzs’. Beneath Grace’s apartment, in the humid grounds of Crocodile Gardens, lives Clifford the five-meter saltwater croc. His grunts and murmurings – mating calls that echo against his concrete confines – punctuate her dreams. Clifford rouses himself only to consume the occasional dipping fruit bat, but the sounds of his calling are inescapable, reaching right into Grace’s bedroom, right into her personal ‘territory’. We watched the slow unfolding of the Icelander’s obsession with her. We saw the gradual loss of her sanity, as all sense of her personal space is lost. She was under attack by her own fear, anxiety and paranoia, and eventually by the maniac himself. The deeply unsettling mating calls of Clifford are a grim reminder that Grace might not be safe at the park. Drewe closely associates Clifford the crocodile with Grace’s stalker the Icelander. Just as in the city she was stalked, in the Kimberley it is the crocodile that lays in wait, ready to strike. When the Icelander finally discovers her at the wildlife park, he runs from security right into Clifford’s enclosure. It is the Icelander who is treated as the dangerous creature here; he’s trussed up in a net like a wild animal, while Clifford is kept at bay with what amounts to a broomstick. The real ‘monster’ is revealed, and Grace takes the chance to run again.

It is then Byron, the local ranger and indigenous elder, who spirits Grace and Leo away from their various pursuers. Byron has his own face tattooed on the back of his head, although he’s not two-faced. Rather, it’s as if he’s looking forward into the future with a full awareness of what’s past. In a moment of reconciliation, John Molloy returns Grace-the-skeleton, the stolen bones, to Byron and the local Aboriginal community. The skeleton of Grace, the first modern woman at potentially one hundred thousand years old, dispels the ‘out of Africa’ theory and in essence turns the world upside down, with Australia at its top. She was revealed by a cyclone in the red sands of Salt End Lake – a shifting landscape that could reveal something of utmost beauty, or just as easily hide its secrets from view. By returning the skeleton, and assuring the safe passage of Grace and Leo, Drewe reconciles the unease in the characters’ relationship to landscape and, by degrees, the coloniser’s relationship to place.

Veering on and off the highway, they drove north until they neared the coast, although neither the sea nor horizon was discernible. A dusty mist drifted from the earth into the sky. One side of the road was dust; the other mudflats. They ploughed through a coffee-coloured haze that only lifted thousands of metres above them … for once there were no natural borders. From the van it was impossible to see where the dust ended and the mudflats began. Or where the mudflats ended and the sea began. The whole country was blurred and undefined – khaki tidal mud receding into khaki sky and khaki land, and a flat ocean like a sheet of plywood.

This is where Drewe leaves us, in a place without borders, without territory. In this place, where everything is soft and blurred, there is no ‘other’ and there is nothing to be feared. Even the sea is as solid as the earth.

Referenced works

Drewe, R 2005, Grace, Penguin Group, Australia.

Koval, R 2005, Robert Drewe, ABC Radio National, viewed at <http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/booksandwriting/robert-drewe/3629872#transcript>.

Cribb, A 2001, Tampa Enters Australian Waters with 433 Asylum Seekers on Board, ABC, viewed at <http://www.abc.net.au/archives/80days/stories/2012/01/19/3412121.htm>.

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