Rush Oh!, the debut novel from screenwriter Shirley Barrett, takes the form of a year-long memoir written by Mary Davidson, who lives in Eden, New South Wales, in the early 1900s. Mary is 19 and a singular girl for her time: knowing, self-aware and not shy about her enthusiasm for men. Her father, George “Fearless” Davidson, is an old-school whaler who frowns on guns and every season leads two timber boats, rowed by his long-term crew. It’s a dangerous and demoralising business, and each season is worse than the last.
Mary is an amateur painter and keen observer of the animals that live around them, such as cranky plovers and assorted dogs and horses. Rush Oh! is filled with animals that behave like people and people who behave like animals, and chief among these is the pod of killer whales that actually co-operate with the hunters to help catch other whale species, in exchange for choice bits of the carcass. Their leader, Tom, would “… alert my father and his men whenever he and his companions had herded a whale into the bay. Leaving his team to keep the hapless beast in check with their usual antics, he would make haste across the bay to our whaling station at Kiah Inlet, whereupon he would flop-tail vigorously in a bid to attract the attention of the whalers.” Whenever the killers appear, the novel comes alive. These animal/human relationships are one of Barrett’s strengths.
Rush Oh! has some glaring problems, though. Mary happily describes things she can’t possibly have known. The various additions of “… by all accounts of those who were present…” and “I am reconstructing this conversation from an account given to me later…” don’t cut it. John Beck, the Methodist minister-turned-oarsman and the object of Mary’s affections, is a cardboard construction, as are most of Mary’s siblings and some of the whalers. There are also strange incongruences in Mary’s world view. Her initial cheery enthusiasm for the whale massacres may be historically accurate, but how then do the Davidsons treat their Aboriginal whalers with such modern sensibility? Various plot points, also, left me unconvinced.
It’s best not to think about it and just enjoy the charm and fun. Rush Oh! stays just this side of twee, yet the danger and thrill of that old barbary is vivid. Regardless, I was cheering for the whales. LS
Picador, 368pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 26, 2015 as "Shirley Barrett, Rush Oh!". Subscribe here.