THE DROWNER by Robert Drewe


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As carefully composed as a period photograph, Australian writer Drewe (author of six previous novels, none issued here) frames the love story at the heart of this generally well-rendered tale with evocations of water and its arid opposites--drought and desert. When Will Dance meets Angelica Lloyd in Bath, taking the waters, the two begin an odyssey that starts in the late 1800s and takes them to the western Australian desert, where they are finally free to love fully. This contrast between water (cool, life-giving, but also death-dealing) and the desert (sapping and murderous) sometimes distracts from the understated and too delicately evoked story. Will, the son of a ""drowner"" in a long line of ""drowners"" who understand the ""secrets of irrigation"" in rural England, falls in love with Angelica, an actress traveling with her father's company. Her mother is in an asylum where water is frequently used in treatments. Will, a civil engineer, takes a job that involves laying a pipeline to carry water from Perth on the coast to the desert interior of Australia, where gold is being mined under extreme conditions--water is short and typhoid endemic. The couple set off for Australia, their travels described in alternating sections with a portrait of life in the horrific desert mining camp. Among the outsized characters are a German photographer, an American undertaker, a stubbornly dedicated Australian nurse, and a French doctor. The epidemic rages, some of the figures fall in love, others are weakened by drink or the struggle to survive. Meanwhile, Will and Angelica, their life riven by haunting undercurrents (her father abused her and other young girls), have to face their demons by bringing water to the desert--perhaps a too cute touch--before they can truly be together. Clever, informative, exquisite in sensibility but cool in sentiment.

Pub Date: Oct. 14th, 1997
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: St. Martin's