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.