Just when you thought January and its nutty health crazes were behind you, how about this for a cure for rheumatism: lower yourself into the carcass of a flensed whale, allowing all but your head to sink down into the creature's intestines. Poor old Uncle Aleck in Shirley Barrett's debut novel, Rush Oh! takes the plunge for his ailing joints, with startled onlookers assured: "You will find him remarkably sprightly when he emerges."
Such whaler wisdom floats throughout Barrett’s charming novel. From the opening lines, the reader enters a world of try-works, blubber rendering, harpooning and the chaos of the chase. We learn why a scarred whale should always be feared, how the black whale is the most valuable of all, and that Canberra was chosen as the capital of Australia because of the whaling industry, indicating how important whaling was to the country’s economy in the 19th century. Barrett cleverly chooses to set her story in Twofold Bay, Eden in 1908, as a scarcity of whales heralds the industry’s decline in New South Wales.
Rush Oh! takes the form of a memoir written by Mary Davidson, the daughter of the real-life whaler George "Fearless" Davidson. His fictionalised daughter Mary, now in her 60s, looks back on the "brutal days" of the most difficult season in whaling history. Its hardships led not only to the degeneration of her father's beloved business but also of the family unit. Mixing historical detail with humour and an engaging romantic subplot of what might have been, Barrett has written an unusual and entertaining yarn centred around Melville's great leviathan.
"I admit it is a daunting challenge, for I fear it will only invite comparisons with Mr Melville that will not be flattering. (I mean, they will not be flattering to me; they will be perfectly flattering to Mr Melville.)" The tongue-in-cheek tone is skilfully used throughout by Barrett, a Sydney author best known for her work as a screenwriter and director. Her scripts have won awards including the Camera d'Or at Cannes in 1996 for First Love and the West Australian Premier's Prize for South Solitary in 2010.
In Mary Davidson Barrett has created a feisty and likeable narrator whose wry voice is a great blend of innocence, faux naivety and a canny domesticity. The eldest of six children, Mary is a precocious, motherless 19-year-old charged with caring for her younger siblings and cooking for the whalers. The menu is eclectic – mutton on a good day, bandicoot when stocks run low, salted beef wiped clean of larder beetles as the whaling business continues to flounder.
Led by Davidson, the crew longs for the call of “Rush Oh!”, the sighting of a whale which prompts the mad dash into boats no matter how rough the seas. Lives are lost without much consideration, bodies are bashed by the elements, the pursuit and capture of the whale the only thing that matters.
Joining old hands such as the formidable Salty are Mary’s younger brothers, Harry and Dan; Aboriginal men and their sons; and a new recruit, Methodist minister John Beck, whose sketchy past does little to deter Mary from falling in love. Expectations are low after her first kiss with another whaler: “His tongue had become involved, which I had not expected, and found alarming, as if a sea slug was flailing about in my mouth.”
Elsewhere, a more covert love is blossoming between Mary’s wilful sister Louisa and another young whaler. Subplots such as these and the intrusion of the First World War into the family’s life add a wider historical context and are sensitively described by the author.
There is something of an Austen heroine in Mary Davidson, with her naivety in love, a burgeoning understanding of the world's injustices and a sharp mind that is quick with putdowns and insights. Narrative devices such as the insertion of newspaper cuttings from the Eden Observer and drawings of whales and the coastal landscape give a more contemporary feel to the book, which belongs as much to the whales as it does to the humans.
The killer whales, particularly, come to life as they help Davidson and his crew to trap the humpback and sperm of the species. Personified through Barrett’s descriptions, they have names like Humpy, Hooky and Tom, the latter of which has “none of the dismal, barnacled grey of the humpback: no, he was a portly and dapper fish in white tie and dinner jacket”.
As they fall in Mary’s esteem from heroes to schoolyard bullies, the fortunes of the Davidsons fall with them. The reader will happily pray with Mary to save them: “Please God, we prayed, bring our father a whale. Make it a big one, with plenty of whalebone.”
Sarah Gilmartin is an arts journalist