The Shark Net

The Shark Net, Robert Drewe, 2000

  • Australia, #23
  • Paperback,, $0.99
  • Read January 2015
  • Rating 2.5/5
  • Recommended for: Amateur historians with an insatiable curiosity about mid-century Western Australia

In 2007 I left my soul-crushing job as a receptionist in New York and moved to Seychelles to study coral. There, for the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people who were mainly not American (they were mainly not Seychellois either, but that is perhaps an issue for a different blog post). I counted several Aussies among my friends and coworkers, all of whom were from Sydney or Melbourne or elsewhere in eastern Australia. They all seemed to agree that there was something a little bit off about the people of Western Australia. I remember, specifically, a story about a guy who arrived after I left and introduced himself to all and sundry as “Stu, WA”, not only did he apparently expected everyone he met to know what WA was, but also his state of origin was such an integral part of his personality that he needed to say it in the same breath as his name. My friends seemed to view this as emblematic of the specifically Western Australian brand of weirdness.

So I’m glad that I read The Shark Net, if only to give me a little bit of insight into a region that I had previously only encountered as the punchline of a joke. Drewe builds an evocative portrayal of a boyhood in mid-century Perth, and though there is some weirdness (mostly in the figure of his company-man father, a rabidly loyal employee of Dunlop Rubber), for the most part the depicted childhood is almost aggressively normal. It’s a study of a developing city, of a childhood spent digging tunnels in sand and picking at the crumbling, sandy foundations of the new suburban houses. It’s a scrupulously-drawn vision of a certain time and place. But this window on Perth just isn’t enough to make the book a compelling read. There’s nothing there that can’t be found more beautifully and thoughtfully rendered in Cloudstreet. Both are set in Perth during the same period, and they are both deeply rooted in Perth’s geography. Both draw on the same events, most notably the murder spree of The Night Caller, Eric Edgar Cooke, with whom Drewe was briefly acquainted during childhood, but Cloudstreet does a much better job of grappling with the repercussions and implications of Cooke’s murders (If you read The Shark Net‘s book jacket you could be forgiven for thinking that Cooke’s crimes would comprise a major plot point, but in fact they are an almost tangential episode, toward the end of the story. I think it is a sign of how mundane the book is that the publishers latched onto Cooke’s notoriety to lend a frisson of excitement to the blurb–there’s not much else you could grab onto). In Cloudstreet the setting, which seems to be the main and only point of Drewe’s memoir, becomes the integral backdrop of a much richer tale.

I might be being excessively harsh on The Shark Net here; Cloudstreet is an incredible book and if it weren’t for the overlap of setting and events I would never have compared them. I’m sure there is an audience who would find Drewe’s wry humor and lovingly depicted scenery entertaining enough. But there have been lots of great books on my Australia list, and I don’t think The Shark Net belongs among them.

California, 2005

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