Rush Oh!

3 of 19
Rush Oh!
368 pages; Little, Brown and Company
It is the start of the 1908 whaling season, and Mary, the wonderfully crisp narrator of Shirley Barrett's debut novel, Rush Oh!, is anxious. The whalers in Eden, on the coast of New South Wales, Australia, are eyeing the sea, desperately trying to spot the grand gray and black creatures on which their lives depend. During the previous year, they failed to capture even one. Mary is also nervous for another reason: "It seemed I was expected to be Cook again," she laments, and the whalers have "extreme finickiness as regarding their 'slops.'"

Rush Oh! begins as a comedy of manners, a vivid depiction of the various forms of human conflict onshore: Mary's rivalry with her sister, Louisa, whose "various flaws of her character seemed to pass undetected"; her preoccupation with John Beck, an apprentice who claims to be a former minister, and their tender, awkward banter.

But as the whales in their stubborn grace—"grotesque and prehistoric in appearance, yet not unfriendly"—move toward land and their fates, Mary comprehends the cruelty of the kill, and the novel's perspective shifts. She begins to see everything and everyone—including the livelihood on which the town subsists—with deeper clarity. Lowering her whale gun, she asks Beck, "Don't whales look different up close?... Alive, I mean?"

Mary is aware of that other saga about whales: She observes that comparisons to Moby Dick "will not be flattering to me; they will be perfectly flattering to Mr. Melville." But she has her own epic tale to tell. The beauty of Rush Oh! lies in her decision to pick up a harpoon and then set it down. She perceives both the dignity of the whales and the complexity of the human quest to survive and thrive. For whom do we root? It's complicated.  

— Karen Bender