cover image The Drowner

The Drowner

Robert Drewe. Wyatt Book, $23.95 (336pp) ISBN 978-0-312-16821-6

An English irrigator draws on modern technology and ancient water-reverence to save a drought-stricken Australian boomtown in this lyrical, evocative but somewhat overwritten Australian bestseller set in the late 19th century. Raised by his father to be a ""drowner,"" or irrigator, Will Dance goes to England to further his studies in engineering and, in Bristol, falls in love (at the public baths) with masseuse and aspiring actress Angelica Hammond. Together the lovers travel to western Australia, where Will brings water to a burgeoning gold-mining town overrun with typhoid fever. At a safe distance from its limpid leitmotif, the novel comes into its own, as Drewe gives readers a glimpse into the lives of three townspeople: an American mortician and aspiring poet; a mysterious photographer; and the typhoid nurse who poses for him. Everything else about the novel is steeped in the sensuality, physics and putative spirituality of water; unfortunately, Will and Angelica emerge more as vehicles and occasions for lyrical language about the wet stuff than as flesh-and-blood characters. The desert mining town, on the other hand, comes fully to life, invigorated by crisp and moving portrayals of Drewe's minor characters and the monotonous beauty of the hostile (blessedly arid) countryside. (Oct.)