Review by Jahnavi Misra
Shirley Barrett is a screenwriter and film director, and Rush Oh! is her first novel. It depicts a small Australian whaling community from the early nineteen hundreds, in the disingenuous and unembellished narrative voice of the protagonist – Mary Davidson. The thrill and the tragedy inherent in traditional, small-scale hunting of a creature as majestic as a whale is vividly brought out through an unobtrusive recounting of whaling incidents. These whaling sequences are accompanied by tiny illustrations that bring the experience to life.
The story is told from the perspective of Mary, who is the daughter of a celebrated whaler, George Davidson. The book is a record of a year of her life as a young girl, growing up in the company of raucous whalers in Eden, New South Wales. While the first part of the book is about her as a young girl, the later chapters reveal to the reader that Mary is now a middle-aged woman, writing this story to better acquaint her nephew with his whaling ancestry. The digressions into Mary’s personal stories through the first half of the narrative – her need for romantic love, her affection and resentment towards her sister, her eulogy for her brothers – have greater emotional impact in the fade-out of the later chapters, when the reader is told that she had simply wanted to write a straightforward record of the whaling culture. It is almost as if the other, more personal parts of the story had furtively found their way into the narrative of their own accord. The reader, thus, not only gets a glimpse of a unique and declining whaling lifestyle, but also becomes privy to Mary’s personal joys and frustrations, especially in relation to her short-lived romance with John Beck – the part of the narrative that she hopes to remove before showing it to her nephew.
The novel portrays a time of transition – whaling is dying out, race relations between the aborigines and settlers is changing, and World War I is breaking out; all of which effects the Davidson family quite directly. These transitions mean that almost no relationship survives without considerable scars – one such relationship that stands out in the novel is between Mary and her sister, Louisa. The pretty and hard headed Louisa is lost to her family and the reader when she elopes with an aborigine whaler, Darcy. She, like John Beck, never returns to Mary, and the reader is left with a tragic portrait of a woman who has constantly been thwarted in her affections, but has never let cynicism get the better of her. Mary, although much older, is still alive and kicking, having thrown herself headlong into church activities, and awaiting the arrival of an exciting new Reverend, to replace the old, boring one.
Rush Oh! is a novel that is full of heart, effortlessly transporting its audience to the small town of Eden, as it was in the year 1908. Mary is a robust and elevating narrator who does not linger on her heart-breaking experiences for so long as to make them seem maudlin, or so fleetingly as to make them seem superficial. Mary strikes a note so exact that the reader comes to trust her implicitly, never questioning her perspective of all the beauty and tragedy that surrounds her.