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Review: The Bodysurfers by Robert Drewe for Aus Reading Month

My Interest

I was almost late to the Aus Reads Month party so I knew I had to pick carefully to get it read in time. [I still failed.] I have a couple of friends I could have asked for their own recommendations of what to read from their country, but I felt that was almost a silly question. I imagined myself sputtering to someone requesting a “typical” American novel to read. I dug around on the internet, finding lists of Australia’s best or newest or shortest or longest reads. I looked at the Amazon previews and then chose this collection of short stories that are somewhat related.

The Story

Here is how Amazon describes this collection:

Set among the surf and sandhills of the Australian beach – and the tidal changes of three generations of the Lang family – this bestselling collection of short stories is an Australian classic. The Bodysurfers vividly evokes the beach, with the scent of the suntan oil, the sting of the sun and a lazy sensuality, all the while hinting at a deep undercurrent of suburban malaise.
From first publication, these poignant and seductive stories marked a major change in Australian literature.

Various stories were related, it is true. A few (Body Oil being one) were mostly related. One did not “work” to me (Looking For Malibu). Most told slightly depressing tales of weary people who did not seem real but who were surrounded by often vividly described scenery, scents, or feelings. Many, I’m sure, would earn the sobriquet “gritty” even if no one was killed, overly drunk, or similar at the time of the scene.

Here are two passages that did not leave me depressed or weary:

Just beyond the Gosford exit warm spring whiffs of eucalypt pollen and the fecund muddy combustion of subtropical undergrowth suddenly filled the car with the scents of the holidays. (The Bodysurfers [title story])

The electric cleansing of the surf is astonishing, the cold effervescing over the head and trunk and limbs. And the internal results are a great wonder. At once the spirits lift. There is a grateful pleasure in the last hour or softer December light. The brain sharpens. The body is charged with agility and grubby lethargy is washed away. (The Stingray)

An occasional worthwhile observation helped to move a story along, such as this one in After Noumea:

Brian picked her at once as a nosy bourgeois person.

This was possibly the most astute judgment in the collection.

My Thoughts

The people felt like worn-out factory workers. The place felt worn out. Both of these seem wrong in a post World War II setting in a young country with vast natural resources and gorgeous coastline. Was this intentional? Most of these stories were actually good reading–just not very happy or uplifting. Such stories have their place. They did evoke, I suppose, the time and place of their setting. I could hear and feel the see–just couldn’t get to know the people. I could sense the emotions of the flat, unreal characters which sounds contradictory, but isn’t. The characters lacked a personality but still had emotions. I think that must be a talent for a writer. I imagine he did not want the personalities to overwhelm the stories which were, after all, supposed to be about their time at that place.

The Bodysurfers by Robert Drewe

My Verdict

3.0

Click here to read my earlier Aus Reading Month post

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