by Robert Drewe
Hamish Hamilton £14.99, 432 pages

Let me get this straight: I’m a fan of Robert Drewe. He’s not widely known in the UK, but he is in his native Australia. His impressive collection of fiction and non-fiction includes a haunting memoir, The Shark Net, about growing up in Perth during the reign of a serial killer, and a beautiful historical novel, The Drowner. Like all the best characters, Drewe’s are sharply drawn yet full of suggestion in these books; our yearning for them never quite satisfied. And he does landscape too. His evocation of a misty, water-logged Wiltshire in The Drowner (Drewe lived in Britain for a while and writes about it with authority), is stunning: columns of gnats hang so densely above the river that villagers mistake them for smoke and ring the church bells.

Yet with Grace, his seventh work of fiction, Drewe seems to have turned his back on his lyrical turn of phrase, and jumped a ride on the chicklit wagon. The results are disappointing. His eponymous heroine is a 29-year-old film critic for a glossy celebrity magazine in Sydney. We are told that she goes out with nerdy, indoor types, “Johnny Depp rather than Brad Pitt. Graphic designers, musicians, struggling writers…the occasional lounge lizard”. When she finds herself the object of a stalker’s obsession - an “erotomaniac” who falls for her likeness to Winona Ryder in the photo above her column - her life falls apart. She loses her job, her boyfriend and eventually flees her home. But it’s hard to feel her emotional distress when we know so little about her beyond the attributes of her type. A modern girl, Drewe surrounds her with modern issues: computer software that blocks access to porn sites, a money-begging scam involving a Ugandan Aids widow, terrorism. Yet these concerns have walk-on parts and serve neither story nor character. Take this example: “[Grace] wept copiously at television’s nightly terrorist-atrocity roundup, at the mere mention of Bali…Bombings sent her to bed with her dinner untouched.” This not only provides no insight of any psychological subtlety into Grace, but its passing mention - and in particular the “s” on “bombings” - is in dubious taste.

The erotomaniac behaves as erotomaniacs do, finding coded messages to him in her film reviews. He’s a creep all right - in flashes of the old, deft Drewe, we can smell his “chemical breath”, see his “redhead’s small lemony teeth”. But, as with Grace herself, he remains locked in the straitjacket of his stereotype’s parameters.

Grace flees to a semi-tropical wilderness, where she gets a job in a crocodile park. Here she segues from urban-girl to eco-girl. Yet rather than seeing her form relationships with her new colleagues, or even with the salt-water crocodiles, the story switches to Grace’s father, John Molloy. We get his orphaned childhood through to his break-up with Grace’s mother, but at no point do we get beneath his skin.

And then another “issue” strikes: Grace finds a teenager who has escaped from one of Australia’s notorious detention centres. He spends all his time persuading his fringe into a Leonardo DiCaprio-style flop and watching Titanic. So, he and Grace are both film buffs, both have lost their freedom, both are on the run. Surely these two unlikely bedfellows will now draw each other out. But no; when the scars on the boy’s lips draw Grace closer than she knows she should get, Drewe seems as embarrassed as his heroine, coyly drawing a veil over the whole episode and moving swiftly on.

I couldn’t help thinking that Drewe’s compatriot Nikki Gemmell - arguably less sophisticated a writer, but one with her heart wide open and voice intact - would have made better use of this material. She’d certainly have had more fun. The scene in which Grace gets thrown out of a “yogalates” class because she cracks up every time one of the women shouts “Release!” to warn of an unstoppable fart, is shorn of its humour by too much spelling out.

There is one brilliant creation that will remain with me: an Aboriginal man called Byron who has his own scowling face tattooed on the back of his head, so that he’s still looking at you as he walks away.

Drewe told an interviewer recently that by bringing in current events such as the Bali bombings he felt he was writing a “big socially engaged novel”. But social issues need to be tackled, taken somewhere; characters need to be cracked open so we can see inside. Perhaps if he’d asked double-faced Byron to handle the stalker, and left the asylum-seeker and Grace in bed for longer, this Drewe fan might have got the novel she was hoping for.

Susan Elderkin is author of “The Voices” (Fourth Estate).

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