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‘Rush Oh!’ by Shirley Barrett ****

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.’ 25861094-1

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.

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Flash Reviews (4th March 2014)

A beautiful William Morris print

Pre-Raphaelite Poetry: An Anthology by Paul Negri ****
I adore the Pre-Raphaelites, and have wanted an anthology like this for such a long time.  The introductory note, which one presumes is written by the book’s editor, Paul Negri, is insightful.  The book’s blurb states that it ‘contains a rich selection of works by the major Pre-Raphaelite poets’.  These ‘major’ poets are comprised of five in total – Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, Algernon Charles Swinburne, William Morris and George Meredith.  I would not personally call it an anthology in this respect, but each to their own.  I liked the little biographies which appeared at the start of each poet’s work, and it is true to say that this is such a lovely collection and, indeed, selection of work.

To talk about the poetry, then.  I very much adored all of Christina Rossetti’s work, as I knew I would, and I loved much of her brother’s too.  Swinburne and Meredith were both poets whom I had not read before, and I very much enjoyed their style.  The imagery which their poems created in my mind was stunning.  I was so pleased to see William Morris here, and think it quite sad that his poetry is so neglected.  For me, it is as beautiful as his prints:

He did not die in the night,
He did not die in the day,
But in the morning twilight
His spirit pass’d away,
When neither sun nor moon was bright,
And the trees were merely grey.
(From ‘Shameful Death’)

‘Silas Marner’ by George Eliot (Penguin)

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Silas Marner by George Eliot ***

Having not read any of Eliot’s work for some time, I had the sudden urge to plunge headfirst into Silas Marner, a far shorter work than the likes of Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss. Silas Marner is a linen weaver living in the ‘early years of this century’.  He has moved to the Midlands after being falsely accused of a crime in the northeast.  A cruel and miserly young man named Dunstan Cass creeps into Marner’s deserted cottage one day and steals all of the money which has been secreted beneath the floor.

Whilst the social history was well exemplified, some of the details which Eliot wove in seemed a little superfluous at times – for example, the constant talk of horses and making profits on them.  I did not grow to like any of the characters, but I found them all interesting.  Overall, Silas Marner was not as enjoyable as Middlemarch or The Mill on the Floss, for me – the lack of a powerful and feisty female, perhaps?  It must be said however that Eppie, the baby found in Marner’s home after her mother perishes in the snow outside, was wonderfully built up to the point that she felt real.

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Listening to Whales: What the Orcas Have Taught Us by Alexandra Morton ***

A killer whale (BBC)

My dear friend Caroline sent me this after writing such an insightful review of it.  It took such a long time to come out of my choice jar, but I was so glad when I pulled out the little slip of paper with its title on.  Morton has studied whales for twenty five years, and even has a hydrophone installed in her home in Western Canada.  She often wakes to the calls of whales, which sounds like a beautiful way in which to live.  ‘I am their shadow’, Morton says, describing the way in which she follows every whale sighting in her boat.

Listening to Whales is part nature book and part memoir.  At the start of the volume, Morton sets out her childhood love for animals and her life before she decided to devote it to tracking and trying to learn as much as possible from whales.  She began to work with dolphins, studying them with the help of a small time, and was captivated by the behaviour of two whales whilst working at an aquarium in California.

For me, the most interesting part of the book was to see how science had progressed since the late 1970s, with regard to such things as gestational periods, the preferred diets of sea creatures, and their habitats.  A drawback was the way in which the illustrations throughout had been put in rather haphazardly.  During a chapter which focuses upon killer whales and those who study them, a drawing of a sperm whale has randomly been included.  Overall, Listening to Whales is really interesting, and I certainly learnt a few things from it.

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