Kungadgee, Victoria, Australia. A weekend in late November, 2014. At Hugh and Christine Cleary’s new vineyard, Whipbird, six generations of the Cleary family are coming together from far and wide to celebrate the 160th anniversary of the arrival of their ancestor Conor Cleary from Ireland.
Comic, topical, honest, sharply intelligent, and, above all, sympathetic, Robert Drewe’s exhilarating new novel tells a classic Australian family saga as it has never been told before.
Discussion points and questions:
- In Whipbird Robert Drewe brings us a masterful tragi-comedy of an Australian clan’s coming together. When the far-flung members of the Cleary family unite to celebrate their ancestry, all hell breaks loose. What unfolds is an Australian family saga as it’s never been told before, both hilarious and poignant. What would Conor Cleary make of his descendants?
- If Whipbird is about family, it is as much a portrait of a nation. What does Whipbird say about what it is to be Australian?
- Robert Drewe’s cast of characters in Whipbird has inspired one reviewer to applaud the book as ‘a kind of Canterbury Tales standing still’, alive with ockerish blarney. What character was most convincingly drawn for you?
- Host Hugh Cleary, in organising the event, is keen in part to show off Whipbird, his latest acquisition – ironically purchased through proceeds from his wife’s father’s line in public toilet fixtures. How effectively does Drewe send up the absurdities and affectations of the middle class in this modern Australian comedy of manners?
- Once on the cusp of being an international rock star, Sly Cleary believes he is now in fact dead, while Conor Cleary – who is dead – is the omnipresent guest of honour. Discuss the two characters, and Drewe’s use of this device, and irony.
- During Hugh’s riotous ‘welcome’ speech, sister Thea – considered the family’s real success story – reflects that she finds Australian history unsatisfying because its central characters are unedifying, and its main events are inconclusive. Do you think Drewe shares this view?
- Hugh, Mick and Liam Cleary represent three generations of Cleary men, with support from cousins Ryan and Doug. How is masculinity explored in this novel?
- Family reunions can be unsettling. A weekend at Whipbird prompts each family member to ponder life’s achievements and shortcomings, and to reflect on what it is to grow older. What conclusions do they draw?
- From the stalking ghost to Hugh’s welcome speech and the stolen Nolan, Drewe’s Whipbird is a comic feast. What made you laugh?
- In perhaps a poetic stroke of serendipity, the Richmond Football Club won the 2017 premiership the year Whipbird was published. What do the Tigers mean for Mick Cleary, the clan’s living patriarch?
- The novel opens and closes in flames. Discuss Whipbird’s masterful, epic ending.