Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett

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Reviewed by Victoria Hoyle

I was sold Shirley Barrett’s Rush Oh! entirely on the strength of a fellow blogger’s review. She made it sound so deliciously enchanting that I had to get my hands on it immediately. Without her enthusiasm this delightful, unexpected, unassuming debut would have probably passed me by. Her opinion has since been completely vindicated by its appearance on the Bailey’s Prize 2016 longlist.

Our narrator Mary Davidson is a painfully earnest and reserved young woman, the nineteen year old daughter of a fearless and renowned father. George Davidson is the last in a long line of Davidsons’ to hunt whales in Eden bay off the coast of Western Australia, raising his family amidst the stench of boiling blubber and the parched remains of his vanquished prey.

…our garden must needs incorporate various vestiges of dead marine life. The jaws of a large white pointer shark, in which the children liked to pretend they were being eaten, formed an ornamental feature near the front gate, while the path leading up to the house was laid with the pulverised remains of whale vertebrae, creating an effect not unlike pebbles, although considerably sharper underfoot. The towering rib cage of a ninety-foot blue whale sat amidst a winter display of jonquils; my father had had the men haul it closer to the house that he might contemplate its grandeur while enjoying his evening pipe.

During the summer months he captains a ragged crew in two twenty-foot rowboats and, with the help of a voracious pod of killer whales, chases down the unlucky blue and ‘right’ whales that wander into the bay from the open sea. The oil and whalebone from a single animal can be worth upwards of £3000, a sizeable payday for the sorts of luckless men who take to whaling. Not every year is good for whaling though, and by the time Mary’s story begins in the spring of 1908 the industrial sea-going rigs from Scandinavia have started to tip the odds. 1907 was an appalling year and the Davidsons are almost on the breadline. Having lost her mother some years earlier, it now falls to Mary to look after her siblings and the whalers, striving to be ever more inventive with maggoty pork, infested flour and the odd egg coaxed from rangy hens.

Visitors are an uncommon surprise at the whaling station – creditors aside – and so the arrival of John Beck, an ex-Methodist minister looking for work, is a notable event. It is made even more notable by his taciturn and mysterious air (where did he come from? What’s his real story?) and the delight he takes in Mary. She doesn’t think a great deal of her charms – likening herself to ‘a character in a musical comedy’ and feeling thoroughly overshadowed by her sixteen year old sister Louisa – but he notices her in a way no other man has. He banters with her; he talks to her like she’s more than a cook in a skirt. Beck is an unlikely whaler, with his smooth hands and his penchant for sermonising, but Davidson is desperate and any strong man who can pull an oar is fine by him. There aren’t many who want to join a crew of old salts, Aborigines, spotty teenagers and taciturn criminals, especially after a poor year. John completes the band of twelve and moves in to the whaler’s shacks at the bottom of Mary’s garden. So the scene is set for the drama of the season.

Mary recounts the happenings of 1908 for us with long hindsight, from a late middle age far removed from Eden. She has a chatty rhythm of remembering, flowing back and forward through time and taking detours for anecdotes and after-stories as they occur to her. Her parents’ back story, the fate of her two brothers and her latter day feelings weave in and out of the narrative. At the same time she does justice to the meat of her story (no pun intended), crafting hectic action scenes and dramatic whale hunts aplenty. At the heart of it all is John Beck, as she returns often to the tentative budding romance between them. Each scene with him is clearly a precious memory, made soft with years of tender handling.

She is instantly and intensely likeable, at once unassuming but bold. The book is characterised by her breezy, ironic humour, which is a grinning joy to read. She is liberal with the sly jibes and asides:

Situated on the clifftop at South Head, Boyd Tower was built by Benjamin Boyd, one of the founding fathers of the Eden district. He was a pastoralist, banker, adventurer and whale man who later went broke and took off in his schooner, only to be killed and eaten by natives somewhere in the Pacific. Such is life.

It’s impossible not to be swept up in the energy and giggle of it. Yet lurking barely beneath the surface is a much more serious book, about loss and regret and betrayal. The truth is that Mary’s good heart was sorely tested back in 1908, and not just by John Beck.

The clue to this seriousness is in the whaling itself. A book with this much terrible violence could never be a light comedy. While Barrett does a commendable job of paying due respect to both the whales themselves, which are beautifully described, and the undoubted bravery of the whalers, the painful reality of the killing and dismembering is never far away. Watching their father finish off a whale for the first time, Mary and Louisa are horrified:

Drawing the weapon up high, he plunged the lance deep into the poor creature; oh, a hideous sight to see. If only once had done it, but again and again he plunged his lance and each time the heartless crowd cheered as if watching a prize-fighter pummeling his opponent in a boxing tent. The dreadful bellows grew more anguished, its last feeble spouts turning red. ‘Stop it!’ I heard someone cry, and turning around realised it was Louisa, tears streaming down her face. ‘Stop it! Make him stop!’

Putting aside what we now know about the intelligence of whales, and the enormous harm that human beings have done to them and to their habitats, the immediate emotional punch of this scene is personal, familial. How do you reconcile the life you lead, made possible by this violence, with the love you feel for your father and your affection for your traditions? Mary’s reminiscences are shot through with a nostalgia for whaling which is at once abhorrent – as are all fond memories of unjust pasts – and entirely understandable. It’s quite a skill to combine two registers of emotion, but Rush Oh! manages by virtue of its lightness of stylistic touch. We get both Mary’s sense of distaste and injustice, and her instinctive reaction to defend where you come from.

Rush Oh!
 is notable for the way that it makes visible inequalities of all kinds, between humans and between humans and animals. Barrett is particularly sensitive to the Aboriginal characters in the book, who are at once barely there and strikingly present. Their appearance on the periphery of Mary’s vision reminds us how the narrator’s perspective centres the story, and how different a whaling story we might have been told from the point of view of John Beck or George Davidson or any other person in Eden. It’s what Mary doesn’t remember that matters as much as what she does.

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Victoria Hoyle blogs at Eves Alexandria. Shirley Barrett, Rush Oh! (Little, Brown, 2016) 978-0349006628, 368pp., hardback.

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