Montebello by Robert Drewe
The Montebello archipelago consists of around 174 small islands, 130 kilometres off the Pilbara coast of north-western Australia and 20 kilometres north of Barrow Island. Between 1952 and 1956 they were the site of three British nuclear tests. Barrow Island is also at the centre of the Gorgon Gas Project and, as part of the deal, several of its threatened species were relocated to Hermite Island in the Montebellos.
Nine months after the first load of animals arrived, a team of scientists travelled to Hermite Island to see if the resettling had worked. Robert Drewe joined that team as an observer, and this experience and the nuclear testing provide a springboard for him to ruminate on many of the things that relate to … well, life.
Montebello is a collection of apparently random thoughts and episodes connected by these strange islands and their history. At their strongest they shine with a powerful humanity, at their weakest they simply entertain.
Drewe reflects on his life and career, letting the book meander through this landscape. The nuclear tests remind him of Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour, which in turn reminds him of his anxiety when his daughter arrives in Tokyo the same day as the earthquake and the subsequent problems at Japan’s nuclear power stations. Within a few pages he reflects on his father, Roy, a pilot in World War II, who, after asking the military doctor for something to quell his nerves, was prescribed the Turf cigarettes that later killed him.
Montebello is a rich, diverse and lovely pot to sup from. One that reflects the frailty, strengths and compassion of its author.
Mark Rubbo is the Managing Director of Readings