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Posted on 16 Nov 2023 in Crime Scene, Fiction |

BRYAN BROWN The Drowning. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

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Actor and Australian icon Bryan Brown brings his laconic style to his first full-length crime novel.

The Drowning is set on the northern beaches of New South Wales in a small town that is mostly occupied by surfers, retirees, outsiders and backpackers. But with the pandemic, incomers start arriving, and things change, not always in a good way:

… Rents had been on the move on the coast. And the movement was up, not down. Some mates had been forced out cause of the higher rents.

They’d lived here for years, but now the cities were moving to the regions and the pressure was on …

It seems an idyllic place, even though the novel opens with a couple of very confronting chapters – starting out with young David sneaking about in the bush, checking out a classic car he has discovered hidden in a shed, and contemplating his dislike of everything at school, except for one:

Thing he did love learning was his language. Indigenous language. And he wanted to improve. You bet he did.

Sneaking about in the bush is something David does regularly, his bike hidden, his activities unnoticed. It is nothing for him to come across DO NOT ENTER signs, purposeful fencing and gunja patches, which make for a bit of pocket money – literally, as he is prone to pocketing handfuls on his way past to turn into cash. Which is how he comes across the car in the shed in the first place. His second visit, however, to take a photo to show his mates, reveals something unexpected: a young woman tied to a rope, and a trapdoor. This time David isn’t unnoticed, and the next morning his body is found washed up on a nearby beach.

They pulled the kid away from the water’s edge. He was definitely dead. Looked dead.

Accidental drowning. Supposedly. It creates a bit of a stir; his missing bike is found in an odd place, his phone gone. His family are left to grieve while everybody else moves on. Much as it was when Danish backpacker Leila didn’t show up for work at the coffee shop – but, you know, backpackers. They move on.  A few people stopped and wondered, but there was no family around to remind people. There was, however, a friend, a French medical student. He and Leila met on their travels and were expecting to meet up again. Eventually he gets worried enough to get noisy. Luckily, he’s very believable and the local cops start to realise there’s something not quite right about all of this.

Brown has developed a sparse, meandering sort of style for The Drowning. Characters are introduced, explained and moved through the narrative in a laconic, non-linear style. Connections are formed, ignored, returned to, and layers of story are carefully constructed. The focus moves in the same way that the action moves, from attention-grabber to attention-grabber. It feels very much a reflection of the way the world works – everyone’s gaze is laser-like, until it isn’t. He’s also created a cast of (mainly) small-town people with what seem like everyday lives.

Wanda was a looker.

Ken had a thing about respect.

Benny was going to make a quid today, for sure.

Conchita had migrated to Australia as a kid and, like Benny, was at the hostel with her family waiting for a house.

Adrian was feeling it. Been a late night. Made him think of hard again. Different hard though.

Sheila was always first in for a coffee each morning on the way to work.

Brian had a dark sense of humour. Eastern European background.

Nolene was an aspirational girl from way back.

Sergeant Tommy Gallagher enjoyed being a police officer on the coast. He knew he wasn’t a city cop.

Friends, spouses, illicit lovers and work colleagues are all in the mix in this cast of characters that expands further as the story progresses. The connections are sneakily revealed in a narrative that is sparse, drily observant, and deceptively meandering. A lot of people turn out to be exactly what they seemed, and quite a few others are nowhere near as clear-cut.

The sergeant poured himself a beer. Into a glass. Reckoned that’s how a beer should be drunk. You needed to see the head. He stared at the head of the beer and thought. Something wasn’t right. That bloody nag would kill him.

Because the timeline is anything but linear, it can feel that clarity is a long time coming. Everyone’s activities weave in and out and backwards and forwards in time, enforcing the unusual combination of a willingness to go with the flow, whilst paying very close attention to clues as they are revealed.

Adrian didn’t smoke very often but he did have the occasional, so thought he might as well roll one now. That was the problem with the job. Made a bloke feel like a hypocrite at times but then that’s how it works, can’t be done any other way.

If, as the story progresses, you’re minded to think this is yet another account of men doing dreadful things to young women and boys, stay with it. Lurking in the background of this small town is a group of men waiting for an important shipment from South America that isn’t drugs, and the reality of what can happen to backpackers.

Waiting for her passport to arrive meant Anna could learn about Australia. Social media was filled with South Americans in Australia particularly Brazilian men surfing. She could hardly sleep with anticipation. There were bad experiences, of course. That happens everywhere. Anna knew how to look after herself. She was no baby.

There are dark places undoubtedly, and there are some awful acts – not just the death of young David. But there are also twists, somersaults, and some surprising layers being formed within all that scene-building that some readers may see coming (others may remain blissfully unaware until the end). Either way, the idea that all is predestined takes a well-executed hammering in The Drowning.

Bryan Brown The Drowning Allen & Unwin 2023 PB 288pp $32.99

Karen Chisholm blogs from, where she posts book reviews as well as author biographies.

You can buy The Drowning from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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