Monday, 8 February 2016

Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett

Set in Twofold Bay, New South Wales during the whaling season of 1908, Rush Oh! is the written memories and reflections of a now middle aged Mary Davidson, daughter of George 'Fearless' Davidson, the third generation whaler widely considered to be one of the toughest and most legendary men on the East coast. He's weathered and battered and not particularly vocal, like many seamen, but he's respected across the region and looked after by Mary, the eldest daughter.

This is old school whaling, a battle between man and leviathan, of hand-thrown harpoons and lances, hand to flipper combat. There's much description of foamy red waves and thrashing flukes, the whales seem impossible adversaries. A competent artist, Mary depicts a gory and dramatic whaling scene at the Eden's Art College fair, only to be outperformed by a dull, ladylike watercolour of a pair of cows in a field. I loved the pen and ink drawings that accompanied the text- so full of character and drama. I also loved Mary's quiet but firm refusal to conform and to be ladylike. Having grown up motherless she feels untutored in the ways of ladies and kind of gives up trying to be appealing and demure. I liked that about her.

Mary talks us through a year she is not keen to forget- one that saw a handsome stranger appear at her father's house. John Beck is an unlikely candidate for whaling; unusually clean and with all his teeth. She quite quickly becomes smitten with him, and she recounts faithfully their turbulent almost relationship. 1908 also saw a shaky whale season, a ball, the first man lost to the sea and a few other assorted surprises.

As well as the whaling, never actually seen up close and merely retold from eyewitness accounts, Mary talks about her family, her unsuccessful attempts at romance, and the experience of living in an isolated location with only two boat-loads of rough whalers to cook and clean for. She is dutiful, but put upon and in constant despair of her beautiful but flighty sister Louisa and her drippy younger sisters. We hear too of the pod of Killer whales, Tom and his associates, who assist Fearless Davidson and his men in exhausting and finally dispatching the whales that provide his livelihood- their payment the downed beast's tongue. Mary gives them all such personality and identity, she describes them like old friends.

A strange combination of emigrant resilience, of the domestic mundane and the violence and brutality of the hunt, this is an unusual read that does an excellent job of conjuring the time and place. I found myself quite drawn into the foamy, blubbery world of Barrett's creation. Though Rush Oh! perhaps isn't what I would usually go for, I found the novel to be really charming and funny, and I loved Mary's apologetic sense of humour. Though she laments that she is not particularly witty, but her narrative is funny nonetheless. She seems constantly worried that the reader will misunderstand, assuring them that she does not mean some ridiculous scenario, which of course the reader cannot help then imagining.

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