Rush Oh! is the debut novel from Shirley Barrett who is best known for her work as a screenwriter and director. Inspired by true events, this captivating novel tells the story of the Davidson family – a whaling family in Eden, New South Wales.
The story is narrated by Mary Davidson, the eldest daughter of George ‘Fearless George’ Davidson – a whaler of much skill and something of a legend within the town. Mary is recounting the particularly difficult whaling season of 1908, whilst referencing to various other memories of her life and family. I was gripped by Mary’s beautifully told story and its wonderful cast of characters.
‘My own feeling of anxiety regarding the whaling season was exacerbated by the fact that it seemed I was expected to be Cook again’
In the absence of her mother, a teenage Mary is forced to become older than her years. In addition to helping run the household and caring for her younger siblings Mary also has the responsibility of cooking for the whalemen. This is no easy task and keeping the men sufficiently fed on a modest budget resulted in hard graft and some teasing amongst the crew over the quality of meat on offer! For Mary though this is her life and I loved her strength and resourcefulness. She was also remarkably brave and having grown up in a whaling family seems relatively un-phased by the grisly side of her family’s livelihood.
‘He’s a good fish is Tom,’ he said at last. ‘Though he has his funny ways’
One of the most extraordinary episodes in the book focused on the relationship between the Davidson crew and a pod of Killer whales. Certain moments in the story are inspired by true events and taken from extracts from the Eden Observer and South Coast Advocate. I found the authors note on the subject to be particularly informative and fascinating. The most famous of the whales was Tom, although they all had names and distinguishing features and characteristics of their own. Whilst the scenes involving their pursuit of the whales were distressing it was nonetheless fascinating to see how humans and whales formed an unlikely allegiance, an agreement in which both parties would benefit. A great deal of respect was shown to these Killers, and there were superstitions surrounding them and what would happen should one come to harm.
‘Rarely have I seen my father so despondent when he returned that night…’
There were moments in this book that were harrowing and the descriptions of the whale chases were vivid. The physical and mental strain on the crew and the whale they pursue was described clearly in all its brutality. Despite the sadness over the demise of such a beautiful creature it is hard not to ignore the bravery and skill involved in a small crew containing a whale of such size by traditional means. It was also difficult to see the strain an unsuccessful season had on the family. Grisly it may be but the whales were crucial to the family’s livelihood.
‘Very well Louisa…You may leave the table…’
‘…Well, I can’t very well take it with me’
Amidst the serious subject matter there was plenty of humour throughout. There are typical, often humorous exchanges between family members, particularly Mary’s stubborn sister Louisa. There is also the camaraderie between the whalemen, one of whom becomes a significant figure in Mary’s life. John Beck arrives at Twofold Bay to join the Davidson crew and becomes the subject of Mary’s affections. However, there is uncertainty over John’s past which begins to unfold throughout the story. In addition to Mary’s domestic responsibilities and potential romance she is also fond of painting and I liked the significance it had in this novel. One of her paintings proved to be something of an ice breaker during her first encounter with John, and I also enjoyed the use of illustrations throughout the book representing some of her work.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Rush Oh! It is fantastic storytelling that is equally moving and funny and insightful. Barrett has given the history of the Davidson family a new lease of life and I felt privileged to learn more about their story and felt sad to leave them behind!
Rush Oh! is due to be published on 4th February 2016 by Virago Books. Many thanks to Tamsin Kitson for providing a proof copy for review.