Sunday 17 December 2017

A whale of a book to bring a rush of blood to the head

Literary Fiction: Rush Oh! Shirley Barrett Virago, €19.20

Claire Coughlan

Rush Oh! has already been longlisted for this year's prestigious Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, which is no surprise, as although it is a debut novel, it is clear that Australian screenwriter and director Shirley Barrett is no storytelling novice. The narrative unfolds as effortlessly-seeming as all great storytelling should, right through to a thoroughly satisfying ending.

Rush Oh! is a novel about the whaling industry in Australia in the early twentieth century, but it's about so much more than that. It's also the story of the fortunes of one particular family, the Davidsons, who live in an isolated part of Eden, New South Wales, and the dismal whaling season they must endure in 1908 when the mysterious John Beck, an itinerant whaleman with a past, comes to town.

It is narrated by the eldest Davidson child, Mary, aged 19, in the form of memoirs she writes from a distance of 30 years later. By turns wry and comical, Mary recounts her father George 'Fearless' Davidson's whaling expeditions, with the help of a pod of Killer whales with whom he has a 'gentleman's agreement,' as they help him ensare the humpbacks on which he relies for his livelihood.

By 1908, the whaling industry had already significantly diminished, as whale oil was being superseded by the ready availability of kerosene and the demand for whalebone declined as ladies' corsets went out of fashion.

Although loosely based on a real Australian family, Barrett says, in the author's note: "In the interests of fiction, and with sincere apologies to the descendants of the Davidsons, I have taken a few liberties…"

The blend of historical fact and the invented necessities of fiction makes for a completely fascinating read. There is a particularly comical scene where Mary's elderly great uncle Aleck immerses himself in the carcass of a whale, recently flensed of blubber, as a cure for rheumatism. There are plenty more interesting details included with Barrett's wit and flair for comedic storytelling.

Overall, Rush Oh! is a great big swimming beast of a book with a heart the size of a whale; one which might ignite a new-found interest in cetaceans you never knew you had.

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