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 Cleary 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 old-fashioned 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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