It’s unusual to move from writing films to writing novels. Most people try to go in the other direction. Shirley Barrett made her reputation with the film Lovesong Serenade, demonstrating her comic sensibility and ability to write characters that were both ordinary and slightly absurd. Now she’s turned a screenplay she had held on to for ten years into a briny novel about a small whaling community on the south coast of NSW.
Its flavour is both salty and sweet, thanks to the marvellously embodied voice of the narrator, Mary, the eldest child of the Davidson family, a dynasty of whalers at Eden on the NSW south coast who learned to work in unique unison with the local pod of killer whales.
The story is based on real life events: between 1840 and 1930 a pod of killer whales did indeed chase humpbacks into Twofold Bay, herding them into its waters where they were only interested in consuming their tongues, leaving the rest of their valuable carcasses to the hardy men of the town to boil down the blubber and process the whalebone.
Barrett’s evocation of the hunting scenes, based on accounts of the time, is especially vivid and really conveys the peril of the men and the terrible bloody agony of the whales. But what lifts Rush Oh! to another level is Mary’s singular voice: she is a somewhat spinsterish, a pedantically earnest and literal blue stocking who actually wears blue stockings, capable of making deadpan droll observations that would be quite at home in the work of Annie Proulx. Mary’s awkward flirtation with newcomer John Beck, a slightly mysterious preacher who joins her father’s whaling crew, offers plenty of scope to Barrett when it comes to gently mocking light-hearted fun.
Like Rosalie Ham, Barrett excels at small scale tightly-knit community with her miniaturist’s appreciation of the telling detail. She brings a fresh eye to a little known episode of Australian history with spirit and warm-hearted originality.
Photos of Shirley Barrett’s recent visit to Booktopia!
Grab a copy of Rush Oh! here
Caroline Baum has worked as founding editor of Good Reading magazine, features editor for Vogue, presenter of ABC TV’s popular bookshow, Between the Lines, and Foxtel’s Talking Books, and as an executive producer with ABC Radio National. She is currently Booktopia’s Editorial Director. For more reviews by Caroline – click here.
by Shirley Barrett
When the eldest daughter of a whaling family in Eden, New South Wales, sets out to chronicle the particularly difficult season of 1908, the story she tells is poignant and hilarious, filled with drama and misadventure.
Swinging from her own hopes and disappointments, both domestic and romantic, to the challenges that beset their tiny whaling operation, Mary’s tale is entirely relatable despite the hundred-odd years that separate her world from ours.
Chronicling her family’s struggle to survive the season and her own attempts to navigate an all-consuming crush on an itinerant whaleman with a more…
About the Author
Shirley Barrett is best known for her work as a screenwriter and director. Shirley’s first film, Love Serenade won the Camera D’Or (Best First Feature) at Cannes Film Festival in 1996. The script for her film South Solitary won the Queensland Premier’s Prize (script) 2010, the West Australian Premier’s Literary Prize (script) 2010, and the West Australian Premier’s Prize 2010. Rush Oh! is Shirley’s first novel. She lives in Sydney, Australia.