I heard great things about this book, and unfortunately I felt mixed about it. On the positive side, it’s an interesting historical look at the turn of the century whaling industry in New South Wales in Australia. On the negative side, I felt the story dragged quite a bit and I never warmed to our main character.
Mary Davidson is 19 years old and supports her father’s whaling crew by cooking and taking care of her younger siblings. The story is told in journal form, with Mary looking back on a particularly difficult whaling season. The town’s income depends on the capture of at least a few whales, so it’s a stressful time if the whales don’t come. In addition, the whaling crew depends on the help of the Killers, a group of Orcas who play a role in herding and exhausting the giant whales in exchange for some of the meat.
If you like your historical fiction to have a lot of detail, you’ll enjoy this book. The book is based on a true character, George Davidson, although most of the story is fiction. Reading about whaling is uncomfortable at times, and it’s even more difficult for the characters whose lives depend on bringing down these noble creatures. It’s also incredibly dangerous work and requires a great deal of skill and knowledge.
Mary is a strong character, but for various reasons I just didn’t come to like her very much. Her infatuation with the new whaler is problematic from the beginning, and they never seemed to connect for me. Mary is always awkward around John and it seems they never really get to know each other, and of course there are red flags about him she completely ignores. There were times in the story I thought the decisions she made didn’t make any sense. I wasn’t sure I saw her grow as a character.
Mary is writing out this story after it takes place, so there’s a lot of foreshadowing about what is going to happen. Using this format, the perspective is limited to what the narrator sees. Mary isn’t present for most of the parts that involve whaling, and that’s a significant part of the book.
A lot of reviews talk about the humor of this book, and I suppose I just wasn’t really struck by it. I’d describe the writing as very atmospheric, which I appreciated.
So I liked the book but didn’t love it. I did appreciate learning about the whaling industry, and I really liked the attention Barrett paid to Aboriginal culture and their role in the crew. If you liked Kate Grenville’s book The Secret River, this is a different kind of novel but you might find it interesting.