The first few pages of Shirley Barrett’s Rush Oh! were strangely familiar. I’d found a copy at Urchin Books in Marrickville and felt that little fizz of excitement about its pretty cover and how I couldn’t wait to read it. But I did wait, extending the anticipation while the book waited by my bedside.
As soon as I started, I knew that I’d read the first pages before. It came back to me, another time when I’d picked it up, excited by the cover and description, but not enjoyed it when I started to read. I hadn’t got very far into it.
How bizarre, then, that this time I was really enjoying the voice and style of the novel. Somehow I just ‘got’ it, when I hadn’t before. I almost felt embarrassed that I hadn’t understood the first time the writer’s humour and the perfect characterisation of the viewpoint character, Mary Davidson.
Mary is the eldest daughter of one of the last whaling families at Eden, New South Wales, and the book is set over the difficult 1908 whaling season that heralds the beginning of the end of the industry in that region. It is the story of Mary’s own life and hopes as a loyal member of the whaling community, and also of the relationship between the human whalers and the Killer whales that assisted them in Twofold Bay at Eden. The whalers relied heavily on the Killers to round up and exhaust their quarry, usually baleen whales and in return the Killers would take select bits of the whale including tongue and lips.
On our own family travels up and down the South Coast of New South Wales we have stopped in at the whaling museum at Eden and seen the bones of Old Tom, most famous of the Killer whales, preserved there along with other artefacts and history. But Shirley Bassett’s work of fiction really brings the world of the whalers to life through the odd and endearing character of Mary Davidson, who is very entertaining in her own right.
Rush Oh! was released in 2015 and Shirley Barrett had a new novel released in 2018, The Bus on Thursday. This one is described by the publisher as ‘Bridget Jones meets The Exorcist in a devilishly funny new novel’. It’s not a description that would usually win me over, but perhaps now that I have the measure of the author’s sense of humour, I will give it a go. I do recommend Rush Oh! particularly for those with an interest in Australian history and especially if you’ve ever spent time on that part of the coast.
My experience with this book was also a great reminder that the enjoyment of a book can be so dependent on the time of life that you pick it up, and it’s always worth having another go at something that generally has good reviews. I was probably sleep-deprived with a baby and toddler when I first picked the book up, and needed just a little more patience to engage with the voice. I’m really glad that I found it again, and that I didn’t remember that I’d started it before until I after I’d bought it!
There is a short video on the publisher’s website showing some of the locations from the novel.