Rating: 4 stars
It has been a while since I read any Australian literature, but Shirley Barrett’s Rush Oh! caught my eye when it appeared on the long list for this year’s Bailey’s prize. I reserved it at my local library, and my turn to read it came around a couple of weeks ago.
During my teenage years (we’re talking 1980s), I had a mild obsession with Australia. My schoolfriend Jeanne Gill emigrated with her family to Perth in Western Australia and wrote letters about what her new life was like. Neighbours was shown on the BBC, and Helen Daniels’ painting trip to the Bungle Bungles intrigued me. There was also Allan Border’s Aussie test match side with Dean Jones, Mike Valletta and Merv ‘The Swerve’ Hughes. More cultural delights were the mini series Bodyline and the drama series The Sullivans. And then I discovered Peter Carey’s novels and films with a very particular aesthetic, such as Walkabout and Picnic At Hanging Rock.
Barrett’s book isn’t quite of the same ilk as Carey’s nightmarish visions of life, but it’s one of the best books I’ve read this six months.
Rush Oh! is set in a town called Eden. I couldn’t get my imagination to fix on geography or clothing in an Edwardian fishing town across the other side of the planet. I could imagine an Edwardian fishing town in Britain and its inhabitants but didn’t want to presume Edwardian Australians looked the same. They did. I checked.
My mild teenage obsession with Australia left me with a basic knowledge of Australian geography, but I’d never heard of Eden before, so had to look it up. Turns out it’s the most southerly town of New South Wales and was once in the running for capital of Australia, losing out to Canberra. In investigating the town, I discovered that George Davidson who features in Barrett’s book really existed, as did Old Tom and the other orcas.
Set up with my background information, then, I plunged into the world of a whaling family.
The book is a joy. Narrator Mary Davidson is lacking in affectation, a straightforward young woman with dreams of being a painter, who yet knows her own short comings. The story is peppered with her sketches (they’re actually done by an illustrator called Matt Canning). I like books with random illustrations. The whalers are all salty types, but not without compassion. I found it easy to visualise them, and I heard their voices easily, too.
Barrett used to be (possibly still is) a screenwriter and director, and the vividness of her prose must stem from that. There is a wryness in the phrasing. It’s a funny book without being cartoonish.
Barrett breathes a fictional life into her historical characters and I felt as though I was there with them, living on the east coast of Australia, dependent on luck to get by. The descriptions of the whale chases were exciting. The vignettes that showed the whalers’ lives made me think of the hardships of the men on the gold trail in the US. That weird camaraderie that comes more from necessity than actual liking. At times it felt so far removed from the civilised way of life I imagine Edwardians living that the story could have been set 50 years earlier.
In amongst the tales of whale chases and the life of the whalers are snippets of family history. The most poignant of these was the story of how the youngest brother enlisted for the Great War and the repercussions that had for the family. The father, Fearless George Davidson, is revealed to be simultaneously a man with depths of unspoken emotion and a man whose entire being is focused on spotting and hunting down the next whale.
I really liked the humour in Barrett’s characters. Mary is so earnest and unworldly, and so concerned with how to behave in order to attract the attention of a man. She has various theories from magazines, but her practice of them is woeful. Her sister Louisa is a spiky article, very dry in her observations and judgements, very sure of herself until it comes to properly deep emotions, very cutting about other people. Younger brother Dan is delightful in his determination to be older than his years, and older brother Harry is a man in the wrong occupation, trying to live up to his father’s unspoken expectation and failing.
In among the excitement of the whale chases there were moments of reflection on the beauty and grandeur of the whales. Barrett gets across the stillness of those moments of awe very well.
“We rowed to within twenty feet of the vast creature, at which I signalled to my crew to lie on their oars. The three of us now took the opportunity to gaze at the creature in wonderment; certainly it was the first time in my nineteen years that I had ever seen a living whale at such close quarters … It seemed perfectly aware of our presence but not in the slightest concerned; it lifted its knobbly head and spouted, Bosh!, as if by way of casual greeting.”
On the subject of hunting whales, I’m not a supporter. Neither is Barrett, but she demonstrated why whales were so key in the local economy at that time, and acknowledged that new products had started to replace whale oil and whale bone. Against the backdrop of economic necessity 100 or more years ago, the chases were exciting, possibly made more so for me because I knew they were important to the whalers’ livelihoods and not for sport, so there was the sense of jeopardy as well as the thrill of the chase. I still mostly rooted for the whale to escape, though!
The economic necessity is made stark when two years of bad returns leaves the family almost destitute. Mary speaks passionately when she is turned down for credit in the local store.
“I went on to state that while it seemed to me the townsfolk were very happy to bask in the reflected glory of my father’s bravery, and write poems about him that were factually inaccurate and did not even rhyme very well, and use his reputation for fearlessness to advance their own ill-fated efforts to have Eden become the nation’s capital, no one would offer a hand in assistance if he suffered two bad years in a row and was struggling to feed his family.”
I was sad to say goodbye to the Davidsons and the whalers. There were ends left loose, which I liked. The author’s note revealed that only George Davidson and some of the Aborigine men were based on actual people, the rest were all figments of Barrett’s imagination. This was Barrett’s debut, but I will definitely read another book by her, when she writes it.