I so enjoyed Australian author Shirley Barrett’s The Bus on Thursday that I immediately borrowed her debut novel, Rush Oh!, on my next visit to the library. The stories could not, arguably, be more different, but whilst reading both I could relax, knowing that I was in the capable hands of a great author.
I love historical fiction, and have read some wonderful tomes set in Australasia over the years. I was a little wary of reading a book about whaling, which I find an abhorrent practice, but the historical element, and the strength which I was already aware of in Barrett’s writing, swayed me. Rush Oh! takes place in a small seaside village named Eden in New South Wales. This is still, incidentally, one of the best places to watch whales in the entirety of Australia. Historically, ‘Rush oh!’ is the exclamation called when a whale has been spotted in the bay, alerting the whalers all across the village.
Mary Davidson is the eldest daughter of a prominent whaling family, who ‘sets out to chronicle the particularly difficult season of 1908’. The story which she tells is described as ‘poignant and hilarious, filled with drama and misadventure.’ Rush Oh! takes as its focus ‘a celebration of an extraordinary episode in Australian history when a family of whalers formed a fond, unique alliance with a pod of frisky orcas.’
At the outset of the novel, Mary is stunned by the arrival of a man named John Beck, who comes to work on the whaling boat which her father owns. Beck is an ‘itinerant whaleman with a murky past, on whom Mary promptly develops an all-consuming crush.’ Mary is such a clear, striking protagonist, who has a great deal of character. Her narrative voice carries us through her story with humour and wit. Weeks after finishing the novel, I can still conjure her up in my mind’s eye.
Barrett opens her novel with a rather wonderful and incredibly vivid description of Mary’s ingenious garden, with its ‘various vestiges of marine life’: ‘The jaws of a large white pointer shark, in which the children liked to pretend they were being eaten, formed an ornamental feature near the front gate, while the path leading up to the house was laid with the pulverised remains of whale vertebrae, creating an effect not unlike pebbles, although considerably sharper underfoot.’ Mary, when she is not cooking and cleaning, spends much of her spare time sketching whale hunts, examples of which have been placed throughout her narrative. Of her hobby, she comments: ‘How dreary and bluestocking it seemed suddenly, to enjoy such a pastime. Nor was this impression helped by the fact that I was indeed wearing my blue stockings.’
The collaboration in hunting between human and orca is fascinating, and this, along with the general history of the period, has been written about with such enthusiasm. Barrett also addresses the multicausal effects of less whales passing Eden than usual. The previous season of 1907, for instance, ‘had been the worst on record in sixty years of whaling at Twofold Bay. Not a single whale had been captured…’. Some elements of the story are quite graphic, particularly for a modern reader, but they definitely add some grit and harsh reality to proceedings.
Rush Oh! is a wonderfully exciting seafaring novel, which has a lot of compassion at its heart. I agree entirely with the thoughts of Markus Zusak, another Australian novelist whose work I enjoy; he writes that this is ‘a story of great surprises and a beating heart’. I am thrilled that so many more Australian authors are available for me to read now, even compared to just a few years ago, and that my local library has such a good stock of them.
Rush Oh! is an excellent example of the historical fiction genre, and I read it with relish from cover to cover. One can tell that it must have been a great deal of fun to write; it is brimming with vitality and intelligence. I for one am so looking forward to whatever Barrett brings out next.