Even I with my love of Australia, a powerful draw to the coast and an insatiable desire to hop inside pockets of social history, wondered how hard-going a novel Rush Oh! would be. As a premise, a 1908 whaling community facing tough times had something of a bleakness to it. As it turns out, it very successfully achieves the opposite. It's about as easy-going a read as you could imagine and in the best way. There's a line of fizzing excitement that runs through any piece of fiction incorporating real people and events, but it's the imagined voices that make Rush Oh! really sing. That storytelling skill comes courtesy of Shirley Barrett in her debut novel.
The book gets its title from the bellowing call to sea the hunters cry out when a whale is spotted. As "Rush Oh!" chimed out around Twofold Bay, they were expected to down tools and head for the boats. It was a continual race against time where seconds made all the difference. A furious battle between man and beast that meant a contrast between eating well or debating how dangerous it might be to consume dried meats crawling with bugs. Despite the occupations of these weathered men forming the backdrop, our heroine and narrator is Mary Davidson, whose mostly fictional memoir decides how we hear the story.
Writing as a middle-aged woman looking back on the mixture of naivety and false cockiness that formed her 19-year-old self, we get far more than just the details of who caught a whale when and how. Whether deliberate or organic, it really is difficult to avoid feeling the influence of Jane Austen in Rush Oh! They may be a couple of centuries and thousands of miles apart, but the witty family ties and tensions interspersed with believable drama, mysterious visitors and told as if relaying the story in a letter to a friend are trademark Austen. Many have stepped up to emulate and failed, but Shirley Barrett makes the convivial style hers. The grubbiness of living among men who stink of whale blubber makes for far less politeness in the writing. There's little room for grace on a 1908 New South Wales whaling station. Austen wouldn't be calling upon sea slugs for kissing metaphors.
Among her many siblings, Mary tells us about her sister, Louisa. She has the looks, a publicly pleasing demeanour and a private selfish streak that often leaves genuinely thoughtful Mary in her shadow. Then there is John Beck, the baffling Methodist minister who crunches his way across whale bones in order to beg for work with the crew. The back-and-forth of romantic attentiveness and pretend indifference between them is gorgeous. Particularly in how she forces herself not to think of him so that any time she just can't hold back, the thoughts are all the more potent. That intense analysis of every daydream and glance so characteristic of girls breaching womanhood is done particularly well. The youngsters are supported by an endearing cast of salty sea-dogs, local residents described with either affection or comedic disdain, and their father, George.
George Davidson, nicknamed 'fearless' for his refusal to bend to the ocean's will, was a real-life Eden whaler. In the novel, he works with Killer Whales to locate more lucrative species. They tip him the nod, he captains his harpoon-ready boats to the slippery money. But this wasn't invented for fictional effect. George really did rely on Killers to guide him to the best hunting grounds and Tom, the Killer leader that practically becomes a character all of his own in the book, carried out that interspecies service for the real George.
The whaling process is described in great detail, which is equally fascinating and troubling given its now political incorrectness. Loving the characters means wanting them to succeed, but that means beautiful creatures need to die. That ethical dilemma doesn't go ignored in the story either. Even in 1908, whaling was not only becoming a less desirable profession, but it was also significantly less profitable. Changes to female fashions and easier tapped sources of oil meant that whales as a commodity were becoming superfluous. Rush Oh! tells the tale of an industry in decline and captures that ending era beautifully.
What rounds off this well-balanced glide between youthful humour and dying trade are the themes that wrap around them. Loss plays heavily in this story and in several forms, though the grief told via recognisably Australian wildlife is wonderfully delicate. Also sensitively done and in the spirit of the country's history is the separation between white locals and aboriginals. The level of respect they deserve in honour of their whaling work is received, and yet in terms of social interactions there is an awkward tension with barriers that shouldn't be crossed. As Mary talks to us with hindsight, she's also able to jump forward from the single hunting season that encapsulates the majority of the book. She diverts to when World War I impacted upon their lives. In the process she reminds us there's a corner of a foreign field that is forever Australia, too.
If you're looking for a book to knock the air out of your lungs, you won't get that with Rush Oh, but that's not its purpose. It's gentle, funny and tender. Its cleverness lies in how it's so unassumingly casual, while telling a story that manages to really stay with you after you've finished it. Rush Oh! was nominated in the longlist for this year's Baileys Prize for Women's Fiction. If she can do that with her debut, it's exciting to see what Shirley Barrett does with book number two. With her extensive experience in writing and directing film and television, it wouldn't be at all surprising if the inhabitants of Eden found themselves starring in a TV series some time soon.