The Fatal Shore

I’m only young, but this is how I’ll feel forever. Dazed, randy, mentally paralyzed and swept along by events.”

—Robert Drewe, The Shark Net

But the horrid thing in the bush!… It must be the spirit of the place.”

—D.H. Lawrence, Kangaroo

Perth, in Western Australia, the setting of this fascinating memoir by the Australian novelist and short-story writer Robert Drewe, is said to be the most isolated city in the world. Facing the Indian Ocean, surrounded on three sides by sand and bush and cut off from the far larger, more cosmopolitan cities of the east, Sydney and Melbourne, by the vast Nullarbor Plain, Perth would appear to be, to the traveler, a place of romance: the “City of Light” acclaimed by the astronaut John Glenn who, orbiting the earth overhead in his Mercury capsule in 1963, claimed to have seen “the tiny glow on the south-west tip of the great black southern continent,” as its inhabitants left their lights on through the night in honor of Glenn and the United States space program. “I can see lights on the ground,”Glenn reported. “I can see the lights of Perth on the coast. Thanks everyone for turning on the lights.”

When D.H. Lawrence explored Perth and environs in 1922, preparatory to traveling to Sydney and the east coast where he would write, in five feverish weeks, the sporadically brilliant novel Kangaroo, he found no “City of Light” but a malefic “spirit of place” that evoked metaphysical terror. Lawrence’s protagonist, the Englishman Richard Somers, a thinly disguised portrait of the cranky, visionary writer, has decided that Europe is “done for, played out, finished,” and emigrates to the “newest country: young Australia!” At first, Somers’s sense of his new environment is poetic-mystical, with an undercurrent of the romantically uncanny:

…The vast, uninhabited land frightened him. It seemed so hoary and lost, so unapproachable. The sky was pure, crystal pure and blue, of a lovely pale blue colour:the air was wonderful, new and unbreathed: and there were great distances. But the bush…the grey, charred bush. It scared him…. It was so phantom-like, so ghostly, with its tall pale trees and many dead trees, like corpses, partly charred by bush fires: and then the foliage so dark, like grey-green iron. And then it was so deathly still….

Exploring the bush on foot, alone, Somers has a more alarming, visceral vision that stays with him through the remainder of his Australian adventure:

Yet something. Something big and aware and hidden! He walked on, had walked a mile or so into the bush, and had just come to a clump of tall, nude dead trees, shining almost phosphorescent with the moon, when the terror of the bush overcame him. He had looked so long at the vivid moon, without thinking…. There was a presence. He looked at the weird, white dead trees, and into the hollow distances of the bush. Nothing! Nothing at all…. It must be …

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