Author Robert Drewe pulls no punches in his scathing satire of family politics and identity.
It’s a familiar situation; a family party where things get a little out of hand once the booze starts flowing. Arguments, sniping and confusion come to the fore at most gatherings, and author Robert Drewe has used the tensions and tribulations of this setting to explore what it means to be family. His latest novel, Whipbird, follows the extended Cleary family over one weekend as, in their multitudes, they descend upon the Whipbird vineyard to celebrate the 160th anniversary of their ancestors’ arrival in Australia.
Vineyard owners Hugh Cleary and his wife Christine provide the setting, with the action seen through the eyes of Simon ‘Sly’ Cleary; once a famous rock star but now suffering from delusions that he is dead and no longer exists in the real world. As more and more members of the family arrive and the drink starts flowing, nothing seems to go smoothly. Especially when Hugh’s prized painting goes missing, Christine reveals a devastating secret and a Chinese entrepreneur arrives with a view to investing in the winery just as things are heating up.
Sharp, passionate and socially conscious, Drewe has a firm grasp on the intricacies of family politics. His writing is engaging, slick and whip-smart as he takes the on a journey that spotlights various members of the Cleary clan all looking to acknowledge their place in this collective unit. Whipbird is a book about identity and society, pushing against societal expectations and uncovering the many follies of humanity. There are questions of heritage and belonging, thanks to the main focus of the story being the arrival of the Cleary’s Irish ancestor Conor to Australia all those years ago.
Despite dealing with some fairly intense issues, Whipbird is an incredibly entertaining read. Each chapter skips from character to character, keeping the pace sprightly and the narrative fresh. Drewe is a master of characterisation, creating multiple rounded characters that are all intriguing in their own way. It’s a gem of a book and one that will no doubt be considered a classic in the not-too-distant future.