While Australian screenwriter Barrett bases her first novel on the story of real-life whaler George "Fearless" Davidson, George's prickly yet endearing daughter Mary is the star.
Thirty years after the fact, Mary Davidson sets out to write about the season of 1908, which she sees as a turning point in New South Wales' whaling business—the beginning of the decline in the number of whales as well in demand for whale oil, as kerosene became widely available, and for whalebone, as women stopped wearing corsets. In 1908, Mary is 19 years old and running the household, which includes her three younger sisters and two brothers, for her widowed father. Her portrait of family life is drolly tart and unsentimental. Actually, so is her portrait of herself, until the day ex–Methodist minister John Beck shows up to work for Mary’s father despite a complete lack of experience as a whaler. Mary is never able to piece together Beck’s whole back story, and neither is the reader; maintaining the mystery of his past and his motives is a daring choice by the author, teetering as it does between provocative and irksome. Despite Mary’s awkward manners, she and John begin a flirtation that threatens to become something deeper. Meanwhile, Mary’s pretty and charming 16-year-old sister, Louisa, whom Mary claims to disdain for her frivolity, wards off a variety of suitors. But Louisa proves more complicated than Mary realized when she makes a shocking decision that throws the family into chaos. Mary’s narrative reflects her just-the-facts-ma’am personality, and she describes the fundamentals of whaling in more depth than will interest any but the most die-hard aficionado (although the relationship between the whalers and the local killer whales, with names like Tom and Jackson, is fascinating, given what scientists have since discovered about their intelligence). But despite herself, Mary’s emotions slip between the facts, particularly in small, often bittersweet asides about what's happened to various Davidsons in the years since 1908.
Yes, there’s a lot of whaling talk, but with a narrator reminiscent of Jo March, the sensibility here is more akin to Little Women than Moby-Dick.