Whipbird is the story of a family reunion. Hugh Cleary, a Melbourne barrister with a recently acquired vineyard in the Ballarat area, has decided to celebrate the 160th anniversary of his forebear Conor Cleary’s arrival in the colony of Victoria in 1854. Over 1000 of the possible 2946 descendants of Conor and his three wives (sequential) have arrived at his vineyard, called ‘Whipbird’, and are camping on the property over the weekend of celebrations. Each branch of the family has been given distinctive t-shirts to wear in colours from red and apple green through to turquoise and purple with the Clearys themselves wearing black t-shirts with the diagonal yellow stripe of the Richmond Tigers football club. Hugh’s father Mick is an avid Tigers supporter and grew up in Richmond where his father Dan ran a pub.
The story is told from the multiple points of view of a number of members of Hugh’s family, each person giving a sense of not only their own story but of the family dynamics and history. These include Hugh and his wife Elizabeth whose money bought the vineyard; Mick and his cousin Doug Casey, possessor of many prejudices politely put; Mick’s niece by marriage Rani from Aceh; cousin Fr Ryan Cleary, an army chaplain returned from Afghanistan; Hugh’s sister Thea, a doctor with Medicines sans frontiers; his brother ‘Sly’ Cleary, a musician who believes he is dead; and, surprisingly but in the context of the story quite believably, Conor Cleary, the original arrival, himself.
Over the weekend of eating and drinking, rivalries, grudges and tensions rumble below the surface and things do not going quite to Hugh’s plan. Through his characters Robert Drewe provides an acutely observed and humorous commentary on both family and Australian society which at the same time is compassionate and tolerant of human foibles. After finishing the book, though, I was disappointed that two minor characters (one who is only present off stage) whose actions bring about the denouement were not developed to the depth of the other characters and, to my mind, could almost be considered to operate as a form of deus ex machina.
The setting of Whipbird is most certainly Australian, with evocative descriptions of the landscape yet I felt that this was almost generic Australia rather than the Ballarat district, an area where I grew up. Whipbird is, overall, an entertaining read but doesn’t quite, to my mind, match Drewe’s brilliance in novels such as The Bodysurfers or The Drowner.
A more detail review can be found here.