By Gillian MearsFiction Allen & Unwin
Foal’s Bread is at once endearingly old-fashioned and sharply sophisticated. Its setting – the hardscrabble New South Wales bush in the years between the wars, amid the world of show-jumping – evokes the recent past, in a reflective style shot through with deep affection. But the voice and perspective carry the kind of nuance that is honed and developed through decades of writing experience; manifesting in a focused quality of attention that brings the world on the page richly to life.
Noah Childs, the book’s protagonist, is characterised by a ‘tenderness underlying the toughness’ – a mood reflected in the novel’s prose. She intrigues from the opening pages, where (aged just 14) she gives birth to her dead uncle’s child by a riverbank, and pragmatically, wistfully, lets the baby go. This incident will colour the rest of her life, as will another, just days later, when she competes fearlessly in a jumping contest and attracts the admiration of Roley Nancarrow, her similarly fearless (and seductively gentle) future husband.
Foal’s Bread follows two generations of this one family, as Noah and Roley’s marriage produces children – and Roley falls prey to a mysterious illness that saps his vitality. There is love, jealousy, loyalty and betrayal, as the family’s fortunes rise and fall in rhythm with the land they inhabit; all of it captured in gloriously sensual prose.
This is the first novel in 16 years from Gillian Mears, who has won multiple awards for her work, from the Vogel for The Mint Lawn to, most recently, the Prime Minister’s Prize for Fiction for Foal’s Bread.
Foal’s Bread is extraordinary on many levels. Mears has written a sagacious family saga about the golden age of show-jumping that explores the universal themes of love, jealousy, ambition and death. Her prose unearths a rich vein of lyricism in the quintessentially Australian vernacular of her characters. The novel immerses the reader in the tough rural existence of the Nancarrow family and the drama of their domestic struggles, and in doing so it evokes a bygone era with palpable immediacy. From the Nancarrow’s family lore and their parochial superstitions it fashions a vivid and complex symbolism that points to the irrepressible vitalism that thrums at its core. Foal’s Bread is a work of humane affirmation, a heartfelt story about the persistence of hope in the face of hardship and tragedy.
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It is a talisman of luck, and love. Foal’s bread – both the object and the novel – is a strange, rare and mesmerising thing.
‘Just every now and then,’ he explained, ‘a foal is born with something that looks like a little slice of bread in its mouth…Fact is, no one knows what it is exactly. In a high-jumper foal, it’s a sure sign he’ll go to the heights; for a galloper, fast.’
Later, we learn that it is believed to hold another power too: ‘love charms they reckon. That people dried out the bread for that.’
One Tree Hill and its fateful river are the location for this tale. This is a sad, tragic story set in a hard and unforgiving place. Noah, ‘the girl with the boy’s name’ comes to One Tree, a farm and homestead in New South Wales. In her first showjumping competition, she meets Rowley Nancarrow, the Australian high-jump champion. The permutations of their eventual marriage mark the course of the novel, but the central story is really the inner workings of Noah herself: her loves, losses and jealousies.
Mears possesses a unique style – the book is written in a strange, cowboy vernacular. It takes a little while to fall into Mears’ prose, but the vast scope of the novel moves at such a swift pace, you find yourself swept along breathlessly with it. In one of the key stories of their history, Rowley Nancarrow famously guides his horse across the jumps so effortlessly that he takes his hands off the reins for a second. ‘Neither accidental nor careless, it was rather that he was possessed of a gift so rare the only thing he could do to acknowledge that his ability came from somewhere bigger than himself was to let go of his reins and stretch out his arms.’ That’s what Mears’ prose is like. You watch in awe what she does so effortlessly. Spinning twinkling beauty out of hard, unforgiving territory.
Mears infuses a kind of magic into the landscape. The land and the animals speak at times, like a Greek chorus commenting on the events of the novel: ‘These are the golden days, here is the golden year, hurry-hurry-hurry, the air of One Tree seemed to be singing each morning to the whirr of the new separator. These are the hallowed ones, do take your chances, gurgled the stomaches of the hungry horses.’ The natural environment also changes depending on the characters’ moods, becoming brighter and more forgiving when things are well: ‘As he put his arms around her he saw that even the moon looked softer up in its place in the sky.’
Midway through the novel, their very own foal’s bread dries itself into the shape of a ‘little fat heart’. Foal’s Bread itself is littered with hearts. They are engraved into the cabinet Rowley makes for his and Noah’s bedroom. Their children, Lainey and George, search for heart shapes in the landscape, ‘This was the game they always played. Spotting heart shapes here, there and everywhere. This one was formed out of half-dried moss and twigs.’ Their showjumping silks are spangled with them, and even a horse’s dappled coat forms a perfectly shaped heart. And this is, ultimately, a story about love – the ambiguous and still-erotic longing Noah has for the uncle to whom she fell pregnant when she was just 14. The mourning she has for her lost child. Her unfulfilled yearning for her husband’s physical love. Her adoration of her horses. And George, a uniting figure of love for all the inhabitants of One Tree, who bestows his child-like love upon his cats.
The strange and rare phenomenon from which the novel takes its name becomes a talisman hanging up high above its events. Mears writes a lucky heart out of a horse’s afterbirth. Though Foal’s Bread is a sad and unsentimental tale about paralysis and loss, Mears has a way of making coarse things shine.
Bethanie Blanchard is a freelance writer and critic based in Melbourne, and the literary blogger for Crikey with Liticism.
Her writing centres on literature, arts and culture, and has appeared in Kill Your Darlings, The Lifted Brow, Crikey and the Meanjin blog, Spike.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist