Of all forms of hunting, surely whaling is the most brutal and barbaric. Other hunted animals may end up with their heads stuck on walls (lion) or their feet used as umbrella stands (elephant). Only the whale, though, is harpooned, flensed, boiled or gnawed.
Books about whaling are unavoidably shadowed by one weird, uneven masterpiece. A character in Hughes' novel pays a passing tribute to Moby Dick by procuring a copy from the Eden Circulating Library, then finding Captain Ahab hard to take. (So did his crew.)
Nonetheless, Melville certainly did not exhaust the subject. The North Water, for instance, is more gripping, and much more tautly framed, than the search for the great white whale.
Now Lyn Hughes enters the field. She has written four previous novels, and spent time in both Wales and South Africa before settling in New South Wales. Her chronicle of whaling begins on a volcanic rock in the Azores, detours through Lisbon, veers up to New Bedford, pauses in Albany, then ends up in Eden on the South coast.
Along that circuitous route, Hughes composes a variety of love stories, some concise but dramatic scenes of adventure, and any number of whale references.
To explain that last point, a whalebone serves as a talisman, the "watery, bloody seepings" of disease are likened to a dying whale, phylloxera on vines is compared with lice on a stranded whale, and a drowning man paddles to the surface "like a breaching whale".
The author's plentiful similes and metaphors mirror her characters' obsession with whales, a pre-occupation fostered by a science book on cetaceans, then nurtured out in the open sea.
At times Hughes' plot might seem leisurely, with a lot of chatting tossed in. When she turns to action, however, her grip on the story is intense and convincing. A mother whale charges and shatters a boat after her calf is killed. Sailors survive a frigid night in the water clinging to a sea-chest.
Turning to less lethal pursuits, Hughes applies similarly concentrated energy to her descriptions of the awkwardness involved in not knowing how to fall in love. "Gently at first, then determinedly, then grimly", a couple has sex, in as few words but with the same emotional punch as the encounters with whales.
Albany and Eden, like New Bedford, recognise and recall their whaling history; "celebrate" is not quite the right word to use. The most vivid story lies well south of Eden, in the days when Captain James Kelly in Hobart would rouse himself from drink and gossip to hunt whales silly enough to swim up the Derwent estuary.
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