Reviewed by Clare Brook
In his latest novel, Whipbird, Robert Drewe has created a satirical portrait of Australia through the lives and circumstances of the Cleary Clan. The Clearys are gathered at Hugh Cleary’s vineyard outside Ballarat, to celebrate the 160th anniversary of Conor Cleary’s arrival, from Ireland, to the shores of Australia in 1854. Numbering 1193, the bloodlines from Conor’s many children are delineated by coloured T-shirts, although some have chosen a theme, so a cohort of pirates can be identified weaving through the throng. En masses they proceed to barbecue and drink themselves into a jovial group haze,
The narrative proceeds via individual vignettes, mostly from Mick Cleary’s branch of the family, a fourth-generation descendant of Conor. Mick is father to Hugh, the host; to Thea, a vegetarian doctor working with Medecins sans Frontieres; and, Simon (Sly), an ex, drug addled, rock musician. Sly suffers from Cotard’s Delusion, so believes he is already dead, and needs to be chaperoned by his daughter Willow. Sly witnesses the proceedings from the peripheries like an emaciated scarecrow. It is through this shell of a man that, ingeniously, Drewe reincarnates Conor Cleary. Sly’s demented and vacant state allows the spirit of Conor to inhabit his mind, to see what he sees and readers become acquainted with Conor’s point of view. His cameo appearances are comical, adding a unique historical dimension, to the narrative.
The reader learns a lot about the patriarch, Mick. He is an ex bank manager, retrenched before retirement age, due to changes promoted by the ‘two-tone-shirted, Windsor-knotted head-office boy’, a similar type to his cousin Doug. Everything about Doug irritates Mick; and dialogue between them becomes a commentary on new business models that might touch a raw nerve for some readers. Mick also battles with Doug regarding Muslims and immigrants. He is fond of his niece, Craig Cleary’s wife Rani, an Indonesian from Aceh; to Mick she represents a whole cohort of Asian people that he is determined to defend. Verbal jibes ensue over the weekend and slowly escalate into a drunken punch. Mick’s interaction with his vegetarian daughter, Thea, and his perspective on modern Australia is funny and, sometimes, sad.
Mick’s son, Hugh, a barrister yearning to be a QC, and the host of this enormous gathering, is coping with one dilemma after another. The appearance of a potential Chinese investor that Hugh is desperate to impress does not go well. His wife, Christine, is distracted by a secret that will change their lives, and which she will, at some point, have to reveal. His twin teenage daughters keep disappearing with distant cousins, who clearly are not harbouring cousin-like thoughts; and then his irresponsible teenage son gets himself and Hugh in a spot of bother with the police.
The characters stack-up. There is Father Ryan Cleary, recently deployed from Afghanistan. A mysterious boy floats around the narrative, mingling facetiously with the guests, none of whom can quite remember where he fits into the ever-sprouting family tree. Younger Clearys are evangelising the benefits of a vegetarian life. And various Asian husbands and wives, and their Australian/Asian children, widen the ethnic spread of the Cleary mob. In short, Drewe has provided the reader with an amusing portrait of inter-generational, multi-ethnic Australian.
Robert Drewe has been writing all his life, from editor of the school magazine to being a well-known columnist, winning the Walkley Award for journalism. He began writing fiction in his twenties, and has since received various literary prizes.
Whipbird is yet another Robert Drewe novel to be treasured.
By Robert Drewe
Penguin Random House