Memoirs of a murderous Perth childhood: a review of Robert Drewe’s brilliant ‘The Shark Net’

the shark net‘The Shark Net’ is an acclaimed memoir by Australian journalist and fiction and non-fiction writer Robert Drewe recalling his childhood and journey to adulthood in suburban Perth in the 1950s and early 1960s.

I was drawn to the book by the description on the back cover:

“Aged six. Robert Drewe moved with his family from Melbourne to Perth, the world’s most isolated city – and proud of it….Then a man he knew murdered a boy he also knew. The murderer randomly killed eight strangers – variously shooting, strangling, stabbing, bludgeoning and hacking his victims and running them down with cars – and innocent Perth was changed forever.”

If there was ever a back cover description to entice me to read a memoir, then this was it.

Murder.

Murder by someone the author knew of somone the author also knew.

And in the sleepy, isolated town of Perth.

Growing up in Johannesburg, South Africa, you’d think I’d know someone who had been murdered or been the murderer. But I don’t.

“The Shark Net” is a book I have always had on my mental “must read” list and I was lucky enough to pick up a paper back copy for a couple of dollars while scrounging around in the book section at the Vinne’s op shop in Moonie Ponds.

I’ve known of the author, Robert Drewe, through a collection of excellent short stories I read he edited called “Picador Book of the Beach” and a short story he wrote in it called the “The Body surfers.”

The Shark Net did not disappoint, even though the murders and murderer play a relatively small (but important and binding) part in the plotline of the book.

It begins with Drewe, a young whipper snapper journalist on the Western Australian newspaper attending the trial of the murderer, but then goes back to tell of the story of his family’s move across the country from Melbourne to Perth, a journey that in 1949 took 12 hours by plane with refuelling stops at Adelaide and Kalgoorlie.

Drewe then proceeds to tell the story of his childhood – of his distant, non-communicative father, the archetypal “company man” who was on the rise as a state manager for rubber products maker Dunlop and his overbearing mother who worried about her children dying from “boiled brain” as a result of the Perth heat.

The Perth of Drewe’s childhood bears little resemblance to the modern, mining-rich city it is becoming today.

It’s very much the provincial town where every one seemingly knew each other, so much so that Drewe not only was acquainted with the serial killer, knew one of his victims

Even seven years ago, when I visited Perth for a mortgage conference, it had the feel of a large country town. We stayed in a hotel in the city and my chief memory is of the lack of people on the streets in the middle of the day. You almost expected tumbleweeds to come blowing down. My other memories are of Cottelsoe Beach, delicious oysters, sprawling suburbs with big houses, the historic feel of Fremantle and the long-distances travelled between city and suburb (and lunch at the Little Creatures Brewery).

What Drewe manages to do so powerfully is to create the feeling of being a kid in Perth in this era – of a town that felt seperated in it own universe, far, far away from the rest of Australia. Of the sprawling suburbs among the sand dunes, with the sand working its way into the foundations and onto manicured lawns.

Drewe writes:

“Some people lived in the loose white sand near the ocean. Even though everyone in Perth lived in the dunes I thought of them as Sand People. Every afternoon the fierce sea wind, which they dismissed as The Breeze, blew their sand into the air and corrugated their properties.”

He brilliantly evokes many memorable episodes in his childhood such as his visit to Rottnest Island, where he kills a shark as means to impress a girl (only for it to rot and smelll); a trip with his mother to hear the evangelist Billy Graham speak at  football stadium; a visit by tennis champ Rod Laver, endorsed by Dunlop tennis gear, mysterious suburban prowlers; late night adventures to meet girls and of murder in the suburbs.

Even if you have never ventured as far as Perth or even Australia, it’s an engrossing, entertaining read, with the bland suburbs south of the Swan River turned into places of intrigure, mystery and primal forces.

Make sure you read it.

Modern Perth with its skyscrapers

Modern Perth with its skyscrapers

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