The Bodysurfers by Robert Drewe

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Happy Australia Day. In honour of the day, today’s blog features an Australian writer.

I read the short stories from The Bodysurfers by Robert Drewe over a few weeks, just picking the book up and reading a few pages here and there, which is much easier to do with short stories than a novel.

All of the stories in the collection feature Australian characters from three generations of a family and are set on Australian beaches. The character’s romances and lives seem almost to change with the tides. The author makes the point over and over again that when Australians escape, or dream of escaping from their own lives, they go to the coast, and this is true in my own case.

The story I most enjoyed was ‘The View From the Sandhills,’ which is told by a man who spends his days watching women on the beach using his binoculars from the sand dunes. He has spent over 23 years in jail for violent and sexual crimes and no doubt he’ll end up there again, but the reason I liked this story is because the narrator was so open. He told his story seemingly without hiding a single thought or emotion, regardless of how socially unacceptable or nasty he appears to the reader.

The title story, ‘The Bodysurfers,’ is told by David, a man who recently left his wife for his lover, Lydia. On the weekend this story is told, David, Lydia and David’s three children are spending a weekend at a beach shack which David recently bought on an impulse. Soon after arriving, David realises that the nearby beach never has any surf, which disappoints all of them. Lydia, who is younger than David and a sexual exhibitionist, swims and sunbakes topless. Poor David’s oldest son doesn’t know where to look. Possums running all over the shack’s roof drive them all crazy at night. The reader gets the feeling that David’s ownership of the shack and his relationship with Lydia will be fleeting.

A later story, ‘The Stingray,’ has David being stung by what may or may not be a stingray, and phoning a woman named Victoria for assistance, Lydia obviously long gone.  In an earlier story, ‘Looking for Malibu,’  David, his first wife and their children are living as expats in the United States.

‘Sweetlip’ tells the story of the death of Rex Lang, on a junket weekend on Sweetlip Island with a 24 man party from the Company. The report tells of a great many of the men becoming ill, some most likely from drinking too much and others from suspected food poisoning. The autopsy is vague and there are a number of unanswered questions following Rex’s death.

Characters use expressions like, “So put that in your pipe and smoke it,” and are described as “scallywags,” which are expressions that for an Australian reader, give these stories a distinctive time and place.

It took me a while to realise that the characters in The Bodysurfers were part of the same family. The characters weren’t all that sympathetic either, quite a few were ungrateful, spoiled brats or middle aged men having indulgent mid life crises. Some characters who are predatory and dangerous. I’ll probably re-read this book though, because the words are beautifully chosen and I feel as if I must have missed something on my first read, as some of the stories didn’t seem to have a point that was obvious to me.

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