Every so often someone writes fiction that ravishes the popular imagination. Robert Drewe did it at the outset with The Bodysurfers in 1983 and Christos Tsiolkas has been doing it in his latest books. Now Drewe has done it again in Whipbird, an absolutely compelling read and also something more.
Like Tsiolkas’s The Slap, it has the great advantage of both a soap element and a massive ensemble effect, beautifully co-ordinated. A cashed-up barrister from a one-time Irish Catholic family invites all his far-flung relatives to a weekend party at his vineyard, Whipbird, in Victoria’s Western District. Hell proceeds to break loose, sometimes in a quite agonised way, sometimes humorously and coarsely, finally with extraordinary fiery dramatic effect.
There’s a brother once on the edge of being an international rock star who now perceives himself as dead, and there’s the ultimate Irish ancestor who partly inhabits his consciousness and helped put down the Eureka rebellion 160 years before. There’s a doctor sister who works for Médecins Sans Frontières, and a priestly Jesuit sibling who’s done time in Afghanistan. There’s the grandfather who knew Richmond in its days of Captain Blood glory and who was retrenched as a bank manager, and there’s his nemesis.
And then there’s a tremendous chorus: boys on ecstasy and girls wrinkling their noses, a superior discontented wife, an impassioned daughter of the rock muso, guys who transfer endangered species for dutiful companies and an endless amount of ockerish blarney together with odd, unpredictable stabs of poignancy.
It’s a kind of Canterbury Tales standing still and it’s a winner. Drewe can really write and he absolutely inhabits the hundred different if all-too-compatible idioms he parades through this racketing saga of an extended family that is also, both opportunistically and impressively, a portrait of a nation. Some parts are cruder than others, some seem a bit too much in thrall to the contagious collective ockerdom, but the upshot is weirdly liberating.
Nolan paintings go missing, strange boys from nowhere show up like a Tony Abbott nightmare, ghosts stalk, fires burn. This is a grand reanimation of the Boree Log that captures a beery gumleaf Australia as well as its gentrification and its appetite for designer drugs. Call it folk art if you like but it has a real scintillation – someone should turn it into a piece of long-form television. QSS
Hamish Hamilton, 320pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 19, 2017 as "Robert Drewe, Whipbird ". Subscribe here.