Best Australian novel for 2011

Late last year, I reviewed Foal’s Bread, by Gillian Mears,  for  the Courier Mail. After a year of reviewing some forgettable novels, this one stood out like a bright red full moon rising over the horizon, triumphant, lovely, full of passion and suggestive of dark rites and sacrifice.

This is Gillian Mears’s first novel for 16 years, and it is well worth the wait. In my book, it’s up there with Cloudstreet by Tim Winton, and Lilian’s Story, by Kate Grenville. The gift that both these contemporary Australian classics give, and that Foal’s Bread also gives in spades, is the shock of the new when you enter a world that is different than the one you live in, and meet characters who are recognisable yet different, ordinary yet strange, lost, failed, broken, yet magnificent in their passion and their singularity.

Briefly, it is a love story, set in the mould of tragi-comedy. Tragic because the magnificent dreams of the two central characters and lovers, Noah and Rowley, founder. Rowley’s nemesis is his slow,  irreversible and mysterious descent into paralysis and death, apparently brought on by a lightning strike. Noah’s is the complicated fate of being a woman, an uneducated drover’s daughter, abused and made pregnant while still a child by a loved uncle. Now, as a young woman, she discovers an adult and equal passionate love with Rowley, but loses her lover and allows  her gift for training, riding and jumping horses to be destroyed by her own despair and feelings of isolation and loss.

Where,  you may ask, is the comedy? The setting is north-eastern New South Wales, in the hilly, fertile, and storm-tossed hinterland, and the place the characters inhabit is a small mixed farm, run by a battling family, into which Noah is incorporated, by her marriage to Rowley, but within which she is always a wild card, misjudged and resented, especially by her jealous mother-in-law. The time is the 1930s and ’40s, when able-bodied men went to war, and the wives worked and waited. Rowley feels shamed because he is not fit to fight. The comedy is not laugh-aloud, but is subtly embedded in the detailed and loving diorama of daily life on the farm, caring for the animals and children, doing the daily chores, with occasional highlights of country shows, where Rowley at first, and later Noah and her daughter, compete. The rhythm of simple, uneducated people’s speech and thoughts is beautifully caught, in a prose that mixes the vernacular and the lyrical in a blend that equals the mastery of Patrick White in The Tree of Man.

I haven’t told you much about the plot, but that’s because it is complex, intricately woven, and to reduce it to an outline would not do it justice. Read the book for yourself! It’s worth the ride, and then some.


Filed under Australian Women Writers, award-winning fiction, life writing

17 responses to “Best Australian novel for 2011

  1. What a wonderful, lyrical, brave review, Christina. Thank you. I can’t wait to read the book.


    • Christina Houen

      Thank you, my friend! I am sure you will enjoy it. Let me know, or feel free to add a comment to the post when you’v read it!


  2. winsomebella

    Sounds wonderful……your review is a delight to read as well.


  3. A match for Cloudstreet and Lillian’s Story? High praise. No wonder Foal’s Bread was consistently reviewed last year as a “must read” book – your review suggests those other recommendations aren’t mistaken. Have you also read/reviewed Mint Lawn? That’s meant to be outstanding, too.

    Thanks for your review and for your support of Australian Women Writers 2012 challenge. i look forward to seeing what you choose to read and review throughout the year.

    (Participating in #AWW2012’s “Read-a-review & comment Wednesday” on Twitter.)


    • Christina Houen

      Hi, Elizabeth, nice to meet you. I’ve visited your blogs and have become a follower. I haven’t read Mint Lawn either! Just some short stories.

      Re your review of Caleb’s Crossing, I resonate with your reflections on expatriate writers. I was at uni at a time when anyone who was ‘anyone’ went overseas, and some, like Clive James, Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes, stayed there and made big names for themselves. Me, I was just a tiny frog in a big pond, unnoticed by nearly everyone, and not sure whether I was meant to be there or not. I’ve recently had to review Peter Carey’s latest novel, The Chemistry of Tears, and it left me cold. I wouldn’t have finished it if I hadn’t had to review it. Weird, ambiguous, complicated and unconvincing, in short. But I’ve read rave reviews of it in the SMH and the Australian. I do wonder if his reputation biases his reviewers. It didn’t, in my case, because although I’ve read a couple of his novels, I’ve never been a fan.

      So it is nice to read a book by an Aussie who’s stayed home, mostly; I’m not making a nationalistic case for such writers, I just love to read any book that creates a fictional world that is ‘more real than the real world we inhabit’ as A S Byatt said. Whether that is at home or abroad is not important. It’s the authenticity, the sensual, visceral creation of a lived-in place with living characters, that matters.

      Does that make sense?


      • Oh that makes perfect sense to me! Having just read – and loved! – Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy, I know exactly what you mean. That book – have you read it? – is totally unrecogniseable as Australian except possibly in the most abstruse way, but it as convincing a creation of a fictional world as ever I’ve read. Absolutely extraordinary. Does everything, for me, what a wonderful book should do – it’s provocative, moving, challenging… Must get on to review it!!

        Interesting what you write about Carey. Did you happen to see the essay I tweeted the link for on gender bias earlier today? (Not sure if you’re on Twitter.) It has an interesting take on meritocracy and diversity which I think would interest you: It would go some way to explain both why many outstanding female authors get overlooked in their own country and why some authors continue to be lauded even if their work no longer – at times, anyway – warrants it.

        Glad to have “met” you, too. That has been the best thing about the #AWW2012 challenge for me so far – finding so travellers in bookworld who can share my discovery of some wonderful books by fellow Australian women. If you haven’t read Dog Boy… Or, better still, if you’ve reviewed it, please let me know!


  4. hello again. No, I haven’t read Dog Boy; I will add it to my list. I’m a very patchy reader, because of my editing work and academic writing. So it’s nice to get back into a literary conversation!
    I don’t twitter, but will look at the link re gender bias.

    Till next time!


  5. Ha, like me you didn’t give too much of the plot — too complex and yet too simple at the same time in a way. And really that’s not what it’s about. Also, I find describing plots in reviews boring — I mean I find it boring to write. I like writing about other things – characters, language, themes. I love your description of the “characters who are recognisable yet different, ordinary yet strange, lost, failed, broken, yet magnificent in their passion and their singularity.” That’s the thing. They’re magnificent.


  6. Yes, I agree; plot outlines are boring; I’m not a plot-driven writer, and like you, I love characters, language, themes; they are what I remember. We are agreed on all points! I loved your review too.


    • Yes, and I’m not a plot driven reader! Thanks for commenting on our Minerva blog. Apparently a couple of reviews suggested Gothic but I think it really needs something more oppressively ominous to be truly Gothic, even in the modified modern Australian sense.


  7. Holy Moley! My copy of FOAL’S BREAD is on the way, & now I’m really excited to read it. Thanks for the review.


  8. Angela (Ms LiteraryMinded)

    Thanks for pointing me toward your review, Christina. You’ve captured this gorgeous book so well. I’m so glad it won the PM’s award also! I wrote some notes on it earlier this year: It’s also shortlisted for the Kibble Award (along with Five Bells by Gail Jones and Animal People by Charlotte Wood), which is announced tomorrow.


  9. Hello, Angela, nice to e-meet you! Thanks for your response, and for letting me know about the Kibble. Will be watching out for that one. I haven’t read the other two shortlists, have you?


  10. Pingback: 2012 AWW Challenge Wrap-up: Literary Fiction and Non-fiction | Australian Women Writers Challenge

  11. Pingback: Mile Franklin longlist announced: who’s missing from AWW reviews? | Australian Women Writers Challenge

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