Australians may be familiar with the shore whaling enterprises that operated in Twofold Bay, New South Wales, until the early 20th century. A unique feature of such operations was the role of killer whales in trapping and herding the valuable larger whale species into the Bay, where crews were waiting to harpoon them and harvest their baleen and oil. The killers would be rewarded with the lips and tongues from the carcasses. This unusual relationship between human whalers and their animal counterparts forms the background to this story related by a fictional Mary Davidson, daughter of the real George “Fearless” Davidson, the whaling boss.
Rather than a conventional novel, this is more a series of vignettes. It’s quirky and humorous with romantic components and other wry diversions. The cast of eccentric characters are entertaining enough, including the individually-named killer whales (who all actually existed), but it does feel as if it’s trying too hard to sanitize grim reality with whimsy and waffle. Some readers will see through it or fail to find anything funny or appealing about the inherent violence involved in whaling and all that blood, guts and stinking blubber.
Being familiar with the history of the region and that of the real Davidsons, I can’t fault the descriptions or landscape. The pen drawings are a lovely touch, but a map would help the uninitiated. And making this iconic family into irreligious drinkers when they were in fact lay preachers and strict teetotalers is a sexing-up that does them a disservice. Although the author offers the descendants an apology in her concluding notes, one has to wonder: why not make them all fictitious in the first place?
As a novel, the distinctiveness of Rush Oh! certainly makes it memorable but also likely to polarize.