Rush Oh! | Shirley Barrett | 2016 | Virago | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1908 in a small coastal settlement outside Eden in New South Wales, Australia. A crew of whalers is led by ‘Fearless’ Davidson but success or failure is not down to the team alone. Their hunt is aided by a pod of killer whales, led by Old Tom, who, if one were to think about whales in such a way (and I can’t help it), is proud, strong, mischievous and dominant. It is Tom who announces the arrival of a large whale in the cove by breaching, smashing his body down onto the waves, calling the whalers to their ridiculously small, vulnerable boats. ‘Rush oh!’ the men call as they run to their oars. But 1908 is not a good year for the whalers. After a century of hunting, the whales are seeing fit to avoid the cove. The whalers are barely subsisting. Their reliance on the killer whales is more urgent than ever.
Mary Davidson is Fearless Davidson’s eldest daughter and, in the absence of their long-dead mother, her role is to care for her brothers and sisters while catering for the whalers. As the poor season continues, cooking something from nothing becomes increasingly hard. Mary isn’t particularly close to her siblings – her beautiful sister Louisa’s life seems relatively charmed by comparison while the oldest brother Harry has his own battles to prove aboard the second whaling boat. And so Mary looks for comfort where she can. She finds it in a new whaler, John Beck, a mysterious man who was once, he says, a Methodist minister and who has retained a way with words. Mary also finds comfort in the world around her, both people and animals, and it’s her record of these as well as her life in this remote settlement so dependent on the bounty of the sea that forms the warm, rich heart of Rush Oh!.
Mary Davidson is a wonderful, humorous narrator and it is her charm and resilience that makes Rush Oh such a captivating read. She doesn’t just describe her family and the men aboard the boats, Mary also brings to life the animals with whom they share their lives in this corner of Australia, including a rather tetchy grey kangaroo, a pair of horrendous mating birds and, best of all, their horse that won’t go anywhere without its cow best friend. And when that cow needs an umbrella held over its head, that makes for an awkward expedition. It’s all so beautifully written and the pleasure I derived from it reminded me of Gerald Durrell’s novels, which I adore. Supporting the comparison are the fabulous little drawings which can be found scattered throughout.
I almost didn’t read Rush Oh! because of its whaling theme. But then I remembered that Moby Dick is one of my very favourite novels and realised that this was not a good reason not to read it. It’s a book that richly evokes another time and place and Mary’s handling of the hunts is sensitively done, especially once she’s seen a hunt with her own eyes. There is a strong sense of empathy with the whales, and not just with the extraordinary pod of killer whales that has formed a mutually useful relationship with the whalers and yet they always have a menace about them. The descriptions of the hunts are bloody – and lethal for men and whale – and in every one I was on the side of the whale. I sense that some people in the novel felt the same way. The whales exert a powerful presence, not least because the settlement needs them for its very survival.
Rush Oh! is thoroughly enjoyable. It made me laugh out loud repeatedly. It is a light read – it could have been much, much darker and its ending could have been more deeply explored, as could Mary’s romance. But Rush Oh! is not that kind of novel. Instead it interprets (and alters) this true story with a strong and generous empathy for its people, history and environment. Mary is a delightful companion. There’s a sadness about her, especially when her memories lead her in directions she’d prefer to avoid, but she is such a fine observer of people and nature and she (or Shirley Barrett) conveys it through the most enchanting words and pictures.