WHIP­BIRD

Robert Drewe Hamish Hamil­ton; $32.99

The Monthly (Australia) - - VOX - LOUISE SWINN

De­pend­ing on your vin­tage, Robert Drewe is best known for his mem­oir The Shark Net, his de­but novel, The Sav­age Crows, his widely stud­ied short sto­ries, or be­cause his Our Sun­shine be­came the Heath Ledger ve­hi­cle Ned Kelly. It seems fit­ting that Ernest Hemingway is name-checked twice in Drewe’s lat­est novel, Whip­bird. “As a writer you should not judge. You should un­der­stand,” Hemingway once wrote in Esquire, and through­out his ca­reer, Drewe has un­fail­ingly taken this on.

The Clearly clan, hav­ing for­got­ten to cel­e­brate the 150th an­niver­sary of their an­ces­tor’s ar­rival, is fi­nally get­ting to­gether on bar­ris­ter Hugh’s new vine­yard for a big bash to mark the 160th. This much fam­ily in one place means all the wars: of the gen­er­a­tions, the sexes, re­li­gions, footy teams, class. Cousins drink too much and ar­gue about cli­mate change: sure, it de­stroys the Great Bar­rier Reef, but it ben­e­fits the pinot vines.

Whip­bird is a dis­tinctly old­fash­ioned book. It’s full of opin­ions, there’s a re­fresh­ing amount of philosophis­ing, and char­ac­ters make po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect as­sump­tions. Catholi­cism and re­li­gion in gen­eral sit at the cen­tre of the dis­course, and there’s a sur­feit of nos­tal­gia. The sec­tions from the an­ces­tor’s per­spec­tive aren’t as punchy as the con­tem­po­rary ones, in which Drewe’s comic turns are a fre­quent sur­prise. He’s par­tic­u­larly droll on the post-break-up dat­ing zone, where em­brac­ing new things can quickly mean in­ad­ver­tently co­hab­it­ing with freaks. As usual, Drewe is a pitch-per­fect mimic of youths, and no one writes the fa­ther–daugh­ter dy­namic with more can­did hu­mour. One could cer­tainly be for­given for think­ing he has some­thing against yoga.

Drewe presents the bulk of the week­end’s drama in the last 30 pages. It’s all about the lead-up. Nu­mer­ous char­ac­ters are brought in with the as­sump­tion that we have the in­tel­li­gence to deal with the com­pli­ca­tion of mul­ti­ple threads wo­ven to­gether.

There’s an old joke that lit­er­ary fic­tion is a plot-free zone. But per­haps not every­body reads just to see what hap­pens – per­haps some of us re­ally are in it for the jour­ney. For the beau­ti­ful sen­tences, if lan­guage is your thing, or for the char­ac­ters, if peo­ple are your thing. Thanks to Drewe’s jour­nal­ism back­ground, his char­ac­ters are in­tro­duced with a snappy de­scrip­tion and ev­ery­one in the room is im­me­di­ately vis­i­ble. It’s a knack so of­ten miss­ing.

Hemingway added: “When peo­ple talk lis­ten com­pletely … Most peo­ple never lis­ten. Nor do they ob­serve.” It is clear that Drewe not only lis­tens com­pletely but also catches the kinds of things peo­ple go out of their way to hide: their foibles, their pri­vate ways of be­ing in the world.

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