Book review: Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett

How entertaining can a novel about a whaling family in a tiny community in Australia be? The answer, I was pleasantly surprised to learn while reading Shirley Barrett’s debut Rush Oh! is very.

Mary Davidson, the oldest daughter in a whaling family in New South Wales, chronicles the difficult whaling season of 1908. Drama, misadventure and first love all feature in Mary’s telling, as do a pod of whales who align themselves with Mary’s father and his crew of whale hunters.

First off, I didn’t expect this novel to be funny, but it really is. It’s full of little laughs, and that’s all down to the wonderful protagonist. Mary’s retelling of the season of 1908 is charming, her voice a little like a grown up Anne of Green Gables. Mary is slightly naive, and wonderfully forthright in most things. Her honesty about her family, about the people in her community, and about her feelings for John Beck, the newest recruit in her father’s crew, is by turns poignant and hilarious, and always straightforward even when nothing else in her life is. Mary is an optimistic, lively, independent female, who very rarely lets life bring her down.

Rush Oh! is primarily a story about family, even if that family is not always conventional. There are the Davidsons – Mary, her father George, her siblings, and their various animals. There is also the family of whalers, an extended part of the Davidson family. The whalers spend the season living with and being fed by the Davidsons (food is very important to the whalers), and though some of the men are blood family to each other, during the whaling season they are first and foremost members of the Davidson family.

The most unusual family is the pod of whales, led by Tom, who help George and his whalers capture other whales. We’re introduced to Tom and company pretty early on, and I confess, for a few paragraphs I found myself very confused as to whether these characters were humans or whales, Barrett imbues them with that much personality. The whales have distinct characteristics, and the way Mary talks about them and their faults and their good points, they are at times just like any of her other siblings.

Rush Oh! is also a story about love, and Barrett captures the heady feeling of falling for someone for the first time really well. John Beck is a mysterious character, an ex-church minister who wants to explore whaling. He is sweet and charming, but is also clearly hiding something – at least, it’s clear to the reader. For Mary, in the midst of her first crush, she thinks John’s behaviour is largely because he can’t make up his mind about her, or because he doesn’t want to get on the wrong side of her father.

For all its sweetness and light, Rush Oh! is also dark and spares no details when it comes to the scenes of whale hunting. Death, blood, the taking of a life, is never skirted around, and we graphically hear how whales are chased around the bay, how they are hit with harpoons, tied up, how their bodies sink and are attacked by other whales, and how they are then cut apart and parts sold. And we hear how the whole act of capturing a whale was a spectator sport, with bloodthirsty villagers lining the cliffs to shout encouragement to George and his crew as they chase a whale. The details are not for the weak-hearted reader. They are brilliantly realistic and prevent the novel from becoming too saccharine. The minutiae Barrett goes into is fascinating, and a showcase of just how much a whaling community knew about whaling and how invested they were in every part.

Rush Oh! is an engaging, fun, sweet, funny novel about life and love, family and work. It has a tough protagonist, who you will very quickly fall in love with, and who can take her place alongside Anne, Emma and Elizabeth as one of the most endearing characters in literature.

How I got this book: From the publisher, Virago. This did not affect my review.

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