Ice (2008) – Louis NOWRA

I’d just like to point out that I had no idea Louis Nowra was a novelist. I was under the, clearly false, impression that he only wrote classic Australia plays. Turns out this isn’t even his first novel. So that’s a bit embarrassing. But I digress – this novel isn’t coming out ’til November, so watch out for it when it hits the shelves.

When his wife is involved in a terrible accident, Rowan Doyle decides to finish off the biography she was writing before she fell into a coma. This is the biography of Malcolm McEacharn (a real person), a man who first found fame by dragging an iceberg from Antarctica to Sydney, and slowly became one of the most influential men in the country, becoming Mayor of Melbourne, and a Member of Parliament. However, he is haunted by his past, which keeps coming back to affect his own life, as well as those of the people closest to him.

Hmm, where to start? I’m going to go with the title, Ice. Good title for a book, but not this one. The whole obsession with ice takes up about the first third of the novel, until Malcolm decides that there are other things that are going to make him more rich. Which means that Nowra has to keep throwing these references to ice throughout the rest of the book, as if to justify the title. He even references the drug, which is a bit of stretch – and then the end of the novel relies on the drug so heavily that it all seems so contrived to be silly.

Malcolm had the potential to be a really interesting character and, at the beginning, was certainly living up to his potential. After the death of his first wife, however, he starts to go a little nuts, eventually turning into this monster of a husband who collects embryos in a jar under his mansion. No, really. No doubt parallels will be drawn with the current economic situation – Malcolm is always, always out to make money, and will do anything to ensure his wealth. He’ll even marry someone he doesn’t particularly like to do this, causing her life to become a misery. His later obsession with spiritualists and psychics are just a symptom of his ever growing insanity, something that no one else seems to have realised, or if they have, they have tried to ignore it.

Right. The end. I’m not going to spoil it, but the end of the book simply highlights the biggest problem with this novel. All the historical bits are fine and interesting, but this parallel story that Nowra has tacked onto it seems shallow and contrived. It’s not introduced properly, so when the ‘author’ starts talking about sitting next to his comatose wife, you’re not totally sure what’s going on – it doesn’t happen until about sixty or seventy pages in. Then, his chats to his wife are just Exposition 101, trying to flesh out this man who intrudes into the story every now and then for no apparent reason. There are some vaguely made connections between Rowan (the narrator) and Malcolm, but they are a big stretch. It’s as though Nowra had researched this interesting historical figure, then realised that the stuff he had wasn’t reliable enough for a real biography, so decided to write a novel, then realised that there wasn’t enough for a long novel, so wrote this extra bit to tack onto it. It doesn’t work.

Look, I’m going to be honest – this is a very messy novel that doesn’t quite work. Some major changes (like taking out the parallel narrative) would really have helped turn this into a much better novel. But there it is, in all its messy glory, with an insane main character. I probably wouldn’t be rushing out to buy this – Louis Nowra should stick to the plays.

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7 thoughts on “Ice (2008) – Louis NOWRA

  1. John says:

    Well she maybe wanted to try something else. everybody starts like this.

  2. L McLachlan says:

    This review is spot on, it was a chore to read to the end of this book

  3. Ysaiah says:

    I do not understand this review or the comments. The book is a wonderful journey into the world of ice and its influence on the life of an important Australian historical figure. It is also a tale of love on many levels. Finally it is an exploration of the inner world of humans as opposed to that of scientific inquiry. I believe Nowra is one of the best writers we have in Australia.
    I could not put the book down and thoroughly enjoyed it.

  4. […] Pages – Murray BAIL Wanting – Richard FLANAGAN Addition – Toni JORDAN One Foot Wrong – Sofie LAGUNA Ice – Louis NOWRA Fugative Blue – Claire THOMAS A Fraction of the Whole – Steve TOLTZ The Devil’s Eye – Ian […]

  5. Lisa Hill says:

    Hi Matt
    Thanks for this review; it makes me suspect that I probably won’t want to read Ice. I’ve found Nowra’s other novels very tedious indeed.
    I do wonder what their criteria could possibly be, when Addition is on the longlist, and Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant isn’t.

  6. Lisa Hill says:

    Hi Matt, as you have seen on my blog I started Ice feeling pessimistic and turned out to like it very much. I think it captures the mind of the obsessive very well, and Rowan’s in particular.
    I do understand why it may not be to everyone’s taste. It wasn’t until I realised that it was *Rowan* who had ‘lost the plot’ not Nowra that the latter part of the story began to make sense. We are inside the mind of a man not coping with what has happened to his wife, and it’s a very odd experience indeed. (For all I know, it may be what it’s like to be inside the mind of someone affected by ice-the-drug too). It seemed very true-to-life though: how often have I heard someone say, ‘oh it’s what so-and-so would have wanted’ when so-and-so is on the way to being dead and gone, not capable of wanting anything and shouldn’t as a matter of respect be second-guessed in this way.
    Your comment about Nowra sticking to plays is interesting: maybe it is structured a bit like a play?
    (cross posted at

  7. residentjudge says:

    I just finished reading ‘Ice’ yesterday and loved it. I didn’t have trouble with the parallel narrative at all- in fact, I’m not even aware of when I realised that it was there- I was conscious from the start that the McEacharn story was being told to someone other than the reader. I think of the book more as a love story than a fictionalized biography- in fact, he’s quite subversive of the whole premise of biography.
    I’m not particularly aware of his plays other than ‘Cosi’ but I loved reading Nowra’s autobiography ‘The Twelfth of Never’.

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