Book Review: Whipbird by Robert Drewe is a familiar tale told in a novel way

A new novel from Australian author Robert Drewe is something to celebrate.  After all, this is the man who brought us The Shark Net, The Drowner, and The Bodysurfers.  This July saw the release of Whipbird, Drewe’s first novel since 2005’s Grace, though he certainly hasn’t been silent since then. A regular columnist in the Weekend West, and a prolific author of fiction, short stories and essays, it’s hard to believe that this Australian literary legend has never won a Miles Franklin award.

Whipbird is the story of a family reunion, which takes places across one weekend on the newly acquired vineyard of Victorian barrister, Hugh Cleary and his wife, Christine.  Hugh has had the brilliant idea of gathering together all the descendants of the first Cleary to emigrate to Australia, back in the 1800s, to celebrate the 160th Anniversary of their family’s antipodean beginnings.  But as is always the case when large families get together, things don’t go according to plan.  And this is a story that anyone with relatives, can not only relate to, but will have heard before. However, what is so spectacular about Whipbird is not the story itself, but the mode of telling.

At first, I struggled to identify who the protagonist of this novel was.  The story is told from many points of view, at times in third person, and occasionally in first, hopping from head to head across a few of the attendees at this big soiree — Hugh, the instigator of the event, Father Ryan, a returned chaplain from the Australian Armed forces fighting in Afghanistan, Hugh’s sister Thea, a member of Medicines sans frontiers who wants to warn her relatives about a hereditary medical condition she has discovered, and Conor Cleary — the patriarch from whom they are all descended.  And exactly how can Conor Cleary attend his own 160th Anniversary?  Well. That’s something I won’t spoil for you, because it’s one of the true delights of reading this novel.  The effect of this split perspective is the impression of being there at the celebration, where all of the competing egos are speaking at once, rising to a cacophony as tensions among family members come to a head.

Through it all, the reader is being given a 360 degree view of this weekend.  They have all of the clues they need to work out how the weekend is going to end, if they are paying attention.  But if they are not, they may just find that the conclusion takes their breath away.  Told in Drewe’s trademark style and peppered with astute observations on the Australia we live in today, Whipbird is a delight to read, and covers a remarkable amount of ground for a novel of only 300 pages.

Whipbird is available now through Penguin Books Australia