Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 4, 2017

Whipbird, by Robert Drewe

It crossed my mind more than once as I read this beaut book that 2017 has been an extraordinary year for Australian fiction.  So many of our best writers have released wonderful new books, I’ve been hard-pressed to keep up with the best of what’s new*.  Whipbird has been on my TBR since July, and I’m only just getting to it now…

I romped through it in two days, and loved it.  It’s a witty satire of contemporary Australia that will make you laugh and wince at the same time.

The ‘Whipbird’ of the title is a winery, named by its aspirational owner Hugh Cleary after the extinct Gosse’s Mottled Whipbird which used to range over his land near Ballarat.   A Melbourne barrister yearning for silk, Hugh has decided that climate change makes this site suitable for the growing of pinot noir, and in honour of the presence at Eureka of his Irish ancestor Conor Cleary, he intends to name his wine ‘Conor’s Rebellion’.  The trouble is, Hugh’s grasp of his ancestor’s activities at the stockade isn’t quite accurate…

The plot unfolds over the weekend celebrating the 160th anniversary of Conor Cleary’s arrival in Australia in 1854 during the Gold Rush.  Over a thousand of his 3000-odd descendants gather at Whipbird, but fear not, dear readers, you will not need to keep track of all the Hanrahans, Kennedys, O’Donnells, O’Learys, Donaldsons, Opies, Fagans and Sheens: the cast of characters is about the usual size and an interesting lot they are too.  As you can tell from the clan names, neatly distinguished amongst the guests by T-shirts of different colours, the first generations of Clearys intermarried with other Catholics of Irish descent, but by the time Hugh and his aspirations reached the altar a Protestant bride was good for his finances and his career and his son Liam goes to Scotch College not Xavier.  Multiculturalism has penetrated the clan as well, and indeed, Craig Cleary has married Rani who is a Muslim from Aceh, while Mick Cleary’s niece Amanda has married Dr Nigel Hu.  But as 4th generation patriarch Mick gloomily notes, names are no guide any more anyway: the children of his son Sly (Simon) are called Lulu, Oris and Willow.

As the day progresses on from Hugh’s hamfisted welcome and his sister Thea’s gauche interruption to his speech, barbecue stoppers erupt all over the place.  As the booze flows, there are rants about the banks, the ‘benefits’ of global warming, electric hand-dryers in public toilets, Chinese investment in the property market and the Nanny State.  Women are sidelined from these controversies as if feminism never happened yet Thea is a doctor with Médecins Sans Frontières and Rani runs her own successful Indonesian restaurant in the absence of her husband Craig.  (He’s a FIFO conservationist working for a mining company, a classic example of bad faith if ever there was one).  When Claire Opie interrupts Craig moaning about the defibrillator he has to lug about on his desert expeditions (in case he has a heart attack from carrying his GPS, EPIRB, a first-aid kit, sunscreen, insect repellent and five kilograms of water) there is consternation:

As if surprised she was also present, the men all turned to look at her.

And her husband tries to shut her up:

‘Yes, Claire,’ Warren sighed.  ‘We know.’

Also present, but not really there is 5th generation Sly.  He’s a former keyboards player with a band called Spider Flower, but suffers from a rare psychiatric condition causing the delusion that he is dead.  He is just a spectral figure on the sidelines of everything, his musical achievements forgotten by the snarky teenage private-school band who prefer to do their own material than numbers from a band that backed The Stones.  Sly is dismissed by Hugh’s teenage twins as uncool and judging by his scabby clothes obviously depressingly poor.  But – in an unexpectedly effective narrative device –  within this skeleton in a coat lurks the spectre of the original Conor Cleary from the 19th century, inhabiting Sly’s body and observing proceedings with a wry eye.  Stricken with guilt about his past, Conor retells events of his inglorious career, which is Drewe’s sly dig at the legions of family historians who assume a glorious military career on flimsy evidence.   There’s a gatecrasher too, who adds an inglorious branch to the family tree in which they take such pride.

Complacency isn’t entirely the order of the day.  Padre Ryan Cleary, not long returned from Tarin Kowt in Afghanistan, and Thea, with memories of atrocities in far flung places, have had their share of personal tragedy too, as do a couple of the other characters.  But the younger generation, heirs to complacency and strangers to misfortune, strike a pessimistic note.  With the exception of Willow who is her father’s selfless carer, none of them seem to have any good points, and the resentment of one of them beings the celebrations to an abrupt halt.  While the children of the Baby Boomers seem to be the main target of Drewe’s satire, perhaps he’s a bit more disappointed by the younger generation…

Whipbird is a terrific novel, don’t let it slip under your radar.

*While I was writing this review the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist was announced, and mildly peeved by some surprising omissions, I’ve listed the ones I would have fought for (including Whipbird) if I’d been a judge. See here. 

Author: Robert Drewe
Title: Whipbird
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Random House), 2017
ISBN: 9780670070619
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books.

Available from Fishpond: Whipbird $24.87


Responses

  1. Yes, Whipbird is such a glorious thing! Fear not, I think it probably wasn’t within the time frame of this year’s VPA.

    • Hi Carmel, I tried searching for the key dates for the VPA at the Wheeler Centre site and at Wikipedia but I couldn’t find a thing. But surely, if it was published in July it would be eligible?

  2. This sounds more like my kind of read (unlike the new Alex Miller). I’ve also had very good feedback from customers about this one, so like many other books. it’s waiting patiently on my TBR.

    • It’s great, I was sorry to come to the end of it. (The ending packs a punch, BTW, but I’m not saying anything about that!)

      • Will definitely try to fit this into my summer reading schedule 😊

  3. I’m a Drewe fan so will need to try to read this one – and set in a winery. What’s not to like!

    • Reading his backlist is on my To-do list. I don’t know why I didn’t read his early work when it first came out, I wish I had.

      • I’ve only read a little I must admit, but I often give Sharknet away as a gift, and I have a book of his short stories , The body surfers, next to my bed.

        • I’ve never read The Sharknet or The Bodysurfers, but I loved Grace (which I think was the first one I read). The hard part of course is getting hold of them but I do have The Sharknet somewhere so that will be the first one I read.
          Does having it next to your bed mean that it’s a collection you’re reading now?

          • It means I’ve been reading it for a few years! Ie every few months I read a story, which is going to make it hard to review when I finally finish!! They are great stories (at least I think so).

            • That is exactly why I find it so hard to review short stories. I don’t want to read them one after the other, and if I leave a gap of time I lost the thread of the collection.
              (You might have noticed lately that I’ve been cheating by just reviewing one or two stories from a collection!)

              • Haha, Lisa, I have noticed, in fact, but that’s a shame not to read whole collections – you might miss the pick story!!! I usually read them in a few days (ie maybe two or three stories at a time) which is how long I take to read most books anyhow. They are always a challenge to review though just because they are individual stories and you really can’t mention every one.

                • Oh I do read the whole collection over time. (Well, nearly always). I’m not as fanatical as I used to be about always finishing a book, but I only abandon them when I really don’t like them.

  4. […] Whipbird by Robert Drewe (I’m just tidying up my review of this one today), see my review […]

  5. I didn’t realise Drewe had another book out. I’ve read a few, after all he’s a Perth guy and The Shark Net in particular feels personal.

    • Well now I have to read it!


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