Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett

Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett

I’ve got a lot to read in the next month or so as I work my way through the Baileys Prize longlist. I’ve not come across many of the books before, but browsing through them has me expecting this to be an excellent reading month. I started with Rush Oh! by Australian writer Shirley Barrett partly because of its beautiful cover. (There aren’t enough books in the world with lavender covers, in my opinion). And it turned out to be a pretty good choice.

Rush Oh! tells of the disastrous whaling year of 1908, as seen through the eyes of Mary, the eldest daughter of George Davidson, the whaling legend of Twofold Bay in New South Wales. Brought up amidst the dramas and occasional triumphs of this all-encompassing profession, the early death of her mother has landed Mary with the role of ‘little mother’ to her five siblings, expected to run the house and provide food for the whaleboat crew. She’s also the plain sister to acknowledged beauty Louisa, winner of ‘the prize of Best-dressed and Most Prepossessing Young Lady’ at the local Eden Show.


Rush Oh! is illustrated by Matt Canning

Whaling at Twofold Bay is a low-tech industry, involving rowing boats and hand-thrown harpoons and lances. The chase ideally takes place within the confines of the bay, providing a display for the inhabitants of Eden, who gather on the headlands to cheer the crew on. Even more of an attraction is the group of Killer whales, led by Master Tom, ‘Chief Scallywag and Rouseabout.’ The orcas have developed a symbiotic working relationship with the whaling crew, signalling when a whale is about and then working like a pack of large and boisterous dogs to herd and harry the whale, giving the crew a much enhanced chance of success. In return, they are given first dibs on the carcass, dragging it underwater to feed on before it gasses up, floats to the surface and is towed to the try-works to be reduced to whale oil and bone.


Rush Oh! doesn’t gloss over the hardships or the visceral processes of the Twofold Bay way of life, but neither is it a dark, grim tale of poverty and struggle. There are minor victories, thwarted romances and day to day housekeeping disasters. Mary’s voice is a delight as she skips between fragments of memory, constantly getting distracted from her story with diversions about local characters or the family pets. Barrett builds up a gorgeous feel of a place, taking us into a way of life that, though distant in time, is completely relatable in its preoccupations and desires. She also plots to perfection. And the text is seeded with delicious illustrations by Matt Canning.

If you (like me) love The Shipping News and Anne of Green Gables, then you’re in for a treat. A hugely enjoyable start to my Baileys reading odyssey, and a high bar for the others to reach.


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