Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 30, 2009

Death of a Whaler (2006), by Nerida Newton, read by Christopher Brown

Death of a WhalerI’ve been listening to Death of a Whaler by Nerida Newton as an audio book  on my way to work each day, and I’m wondering why this book was ignored for the major awards of its year of publication (2006).

The central character, Flinch, is the ultimate anti-hero.  He is short and scrawny;  was born with a deformed leg; is jobless and uneducated, has no money and lives in a dingy pastel pink house.   He has one pair of jeans that fit him – all the others trail the leg of the pant where one leg is shorter than the other. When he did have a job it was as a whaler – as near as one can be to a pariah in hippie Byron Bay of 1962, (and probably throughout Australia and the civilised world in 2009).  He has an ancient ute nicknamed Millie ( what kind of name is that for a bloke to call his car?) but so far is he from the stereotypical Aussie male of heroic ingenuity, that when the ute breaks down, he can’t fix it.  His spiteful mother Audrey gave him a miserable childhood, blaming him for her self-imposed loserdom, and it seems as if all of Byron Bay was glad to see the back of her when she died.  Oh, and Flinch accidentally killed his best mate, Nate, too…

Flinch could so easily, then, have been a pathetic character and the story maudlin, but the author of The Lambing Flat (1) is too good a writer for that…  For Flinch, while a recluse (and who wouldn’t want to be?) and burdened with awful emotional baggage, is no embittered loser.  He is his own man.  When he meets up with Karma, (who reminds me of Lizzy Dellora (the daffy blonde) in East of Everything ) he eventually overcomes his wariness and enjoys her open friendliness – but he doesn’t for one moment believe in the hippie spirituality stuff and isn’t about to go vegetarian any time soon.   Newton portrays his occasional forays into the commune in a mixture of droll humour and awakening hope as he begins to emerge from his self-imposed isolation.

Byron Bay 1962 is as I have never seen it, a tatty, dingy place like so many of those daggy Queensland towns you drive through on your way to somewhere else.  Newton has resisted the temptation to wax lyrical about the bay, and has instead chosen to remind us about its past as a whaling station.  The innocence of the commune is in stark contrast to Nimbin today: yes, you can still catch a whiff of pot as you stroll through town, but you’re more likely to smell good coffee  or to hear cash registers rather than meditational chanting.   These scenes are great writing, untainted by that tiresome nostalgia you sometimes hear from people who whinge ‘Oh, you should have been here when it was unspoiled’.

I’m only about half way through the 7 CDs, but I’m enjoying this story so much I can’t understand the sneering review at SMH  which seems to me to say more about the reviewer than the book.  (‘Hey, I’m really clever, I saw the literary hints long before you will, readers, because I’ve read Moby Dick!’) Well, I’m no fan of sledge-hammer symbolism, but the Moby Dick motifs in Death of a Whaler don’t seem to me to be heavy-handed at all.

This is what the ABC shop blurb says about it (and I’m sure they won’t mind me reproducing it here because it might tempt you to buy this lovely book from them):

A very Australian tale of fate, forgiveness and redemption, Death of a Whaler is a big-hearted story about the unsteady progress we make towards healing and wholeness.  A simple, powerful story about death, grief, rebirth and reawakening – an Australian classic in the making from the award-wining author of The Lambing Flat.

 Byron Bay, 1962. On the second last day before the whaling station is closed down for good, Flinch, the young spotter, is involved in a terrible accident.

Over a decade later, Flinch has become a recluse, unable to move on from that fatal moment. The Bay, too, seems stalled in its bloody past, the land and the ocean on which it was founded now barren and unyielding.

 It is only after crossing paths with Karma, a girl living in one of the hinterland’s first hippie communes, that Flinch gradually and reluctantly embarks upon a path towards healing, coming to terms with his past, present and future.

 A very Australian tale of fate, forgiveness and redemption, Death of a Whaler is a big-hearted story about the unsteady progress we make towards healing and wholeness.

I’m glad I bought this book when  it first came out, because I’ll have it to enjoy long after the audio book has gone back to the library.  I’ll be buying Newton’s next one too.

Update 3.8.09

Good news! (You read it here first!)

I had a email from Nerida: ‘I am writing another novel at the moment, though have only recently taken up writing again after a self-imposed maternity break. My next novel is set in France in the mid-19th century. That’s about all I can say at the moment, as it’s very much in the development phase’.

Something to look forward to:)

(1)The Lambing Flat was shortlisted for the 2004 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize SE Asia & South Pacific Best First Book, the  Queensland Premier’s Literary Award (2002) for an emerging author, and was runner-up for the Vogel, and when ANZLL read it in 2004 we thought it was a great book and rated it 8. Ironically, considering the nasty 2006 review, Newton was also awarded Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist 2004.

Author: Nerida Newton
Title: Death of a Whaler
Publisher: Allen & Unwin 2006/Louis Braille Audio
ISBN: 9780732032838
Source: Kingston Library


  1. Oh Lisa, I have one of those prepublication copies of this book – Allen and Unwin isn’t it? – and have wondered about reading it. Now I think I must BUT when… (Sorry, but because of this I haven’t read all your review here – I just read to where you wondered why it wasn’t nominated for awards and decided stop as I should try to read it).


    • I loved it so much that I did something I’ve never done before…after I’d finished the audio book, I got out my copy of the book and started reading it, only stopping because there’s a book I’m supposed to read for ANZLL. I think it’s because I became so very fond of the characters, and it offers hope for all the damaged people out there, that there could be redemption and love in their lives. It is *so* well written!


  2. I will go and get it out of the my bookgroup prepub basket right now and put it in my TBR pile. Noone’s shown interest in that basket for months anyhow! Sounds perfect.


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