Books & Literature

Book Review: Whipbird, by Robert Drewe

A grand, historic Irish Catholic family saga stretching 160, centred around a gathering of the Cleary clan to celebrate the original landing of their ancestor.

Whipbird is, on the surface, a deceptively delightful, straightforward and deliciously enjoyable grand historic Irish Catholic family saga stretching 160 years from 1854 to 2014.

Law firm Partner Hugh Cleary has gathered the Cleary clan from all over Australia and overseas to celebrate the landing of their ancestor Conor in Victoria, the beginning of their family and its history.

The celebratory weekend of 29 and 30 November 2014 is held on Hugh and wife Christine’s new winery and homestead in Kunadgee, named Whipbird, after the distinctive but extinct bird.

Beneath the surface of Drewe’s amiable, familiar and comfortably engaging tales of many characters’ family stories and lives is something more challenging and complex. Something slowly egging you to wonder what is it Drewe is trying get at… to really say in this novel overflowing with so much about the Australia we live in right now.

The structure of the novel is as strong as it is simple. Deeply symbolic as it is a ‘plain’ tale convincing you it’s so good it couldn’t end.

The Clearly legions gather on two vacant paddocks a reasonable distance from the homestead. Barbecue smoke winds around, the booze flows freely. Nearly all dress in colour-coded t-shirts for each family branch. The imagery is as vividly surface-level crisp as it is recognisably representing deeper layers of meaning.

Family members of different generations are weaved together and apart, carefully segueing into richly revealing inner lives of Hugh and wife Christine, his Father Mick, children Zoe, Olivia, and Liam, as well as brother Father Ryan SJ, sister Doctor Thea and importantly, brother ‘Sly’ Simon, a broken down rock star suffering Cotard’s Syndrome, or Walking Dead Syndrome; the belief he is dead.

It’s all so recognisably familiar. It’s also subtly disturbing. Drewe does not hold back with his take-no-prisoners onslaught of close to the bone, unvarnished sense of despair, loss, foolish vanity and thwarted yearning to be found in an extraordinary collection of outrageous to deeply ordinary characters.

What’s most extreme, in experience and character, has infected the entire family generation to generation. No better is this poetically and symbolically expressed than in Sly’s empty mind in which lives the voice of long ago dead Conor Cleary, observing the celebration of his life.

Drewe insistently invades the subconscious comfort zone of every parochial, self-satisfied historical mythos the nation, and the Clearly family particularly, take sustenance from: Richmond Football Club, the Eureka Stockade, military heroism, generational family success in rising up in the world, all sprinkled with the historic divide of Catholic and Church of England, colony and nation state.

It’s executed in a fashion that the effect of this invasion is not realised until the crushing climax of the novel, emptying you of breath and sparking instant comprehension of intention hidden within the many strands of the plot.

Whipbird is the too-close-for-comfort novel that Australia really needs. A book telling it like it is in an honest as dirt way, instantly understood, impossible to reject, and thoroughly mesmerising in the telling.

Reviewed by David O’Brien
Twitter: @DavidOBupstART

Rating out of 10:  10

Distributed by: Penguin Australia
Release date: July 2017
RRP: $32.99 paperback, $12.99 eBook

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