Back in October, I wrote about my love for Moby Dick, arguing as convincingly as I could that it’s not a book about one man’s quest to kill a malicious marine mammal, but an epic and encyclopedic love ode to whales in general (you can read the whole, gushing post here). In some ways, Barrett’s ‘Rush Oh!’ a historical novel about an Australian whaling family, was an obvious reading choice. In other ways (the probable emphasis on killing rather than loving), possibly not.
Having given in, partly due to a determination to read at least one more of the Bailey’s longlist before it all gets narrowed down in a week’s time, I can reassure all Moby Dick fans that Barrett has succeeded. This is the kind of well-judged historical novel that reminds readers of why they like historical novels. Taking a little known, frankly unfashionable, topic and bringing it to life through believable, endearing characters, ‘Rush Oh!’ is a charming insight into a lost way of life.
It’s a challenging premise. Modern sympathies are simply incompatible with traditional whale hunting, while sensible modern readers would probably lose patience with historical communities who stood up for the rights of animals over, for example, the ability to feed, house and clothe a family. By widening out the scope of the novel, the narrator is the daughter of a renowned whaler rather than a whaler herself, we see a more complex relationship between humans and animals. The novel is packed with wonderfully believable animal characters, from the Killer whales who work as auxiliaries to the human whalers to the idiosyncratic domestic animals to, my personal favourite, the masked plovers known as Mr and Mrs Maudrey:
By all accounts entirely capable of flight, the Maudrys for the most part elected not to, preferring to spend their days instead lurking ominously amongst the jonquils. Occasionally they might materialise suddenly out of ‘thin air’ where previously they were not, prompting the thought that wings may have been utilised in some fashion in order for them to do so. For reasons of their own, however, Mr and Mrs Maudry felt it necessary to maintain the illusion that they were solely ground dwellers.
As shown above, the narrator, Mary Davidson, is the perfect guide to the region and period. Funny, put-upon and desperately doing her best, she is enough of an insider to give a real taste of the whaler life-style. As a girl however, she does not go out in the boats and so is also an outsider to much of the macho world that frames her existence. With the appearance of a mysterious stranger, the novel is framed as Mary’s love story; as her struggling father could have told her though, hunting for anything is a dangerous and precarious business. The whales on which her family depend are becoming more illusive, while kerosene and new fashions are also making them less valuable. Also, once a whale dives it can be nearly impossible to know where it will surface. These mammals are always essentially unknowable, a trait increasingly echoed by all of the characters in the book, much to the chagrin of their chronicler.
Touching on the place of women, religion and race in early 1900’s New South Wales ‘Rush Oh’ is a highly ambitious book. The light touch of its wonderful narrator means it’s also a highly enjoyable one. A new view of whaling, but a book that comfortably sits within a wonderful literary tradition.
I received my copy of ‘Rush Oh!’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.