December 2011 – January 2012

Arts & Letters

'Foal’s Bread' by Gillian Mears

By Carmen Callil
'Foal’s Bread' By Gillian Mears, Allen and Unwin, 376pp; $32.99

Gillian Mears’s new novel tells the story of the Nancarrow family of One Tree Farm, subsistence farmers in rural New South Wales. Its heroine Noah (‘Noey’) is 14 when the novel begins in 1926; her daughter Lainey is a grandmother as it comes to a close in our century. There is a mother-in-law of monstrous proportions, aunts, children and neighbours, all placed in a horse-jumping and farming community as vividly Australian as anything celebrated in the poems of Les Murray. And uncles: after reading Foal’s Bread uncles can never seem the same to any niece.

Mears’s pre-war Australia is inarticulate, brutal, but also vibrant with the habits of the time. The food – endless cakes and pikelets, milkshakes and Christmas trifles – is evoked with as much attention as every tree and river of her land. Not only do her characters speak our truncated, staccato argot – so often words that make you laugh covering deeds that do not – they think in it. The Australian they speak, streaked with ‘goodo’, ‘fair dinkum’ and abbreviations of any word longer than one syllable, is a patois as suspicious of emotion as it is of every Aboriginal or Catholic in the vicinity. Lainey on her mother: “Me Mum’s as tough as a bleedin bullock hide … Make a stew out of her and there’d be whip marks in the gravy.” In this language, Mears presents an exploration of the love – and hatred – of families who depend too much on each other for every speck of love and attention.

The adult Noey and her husband Roley Nancarrow are stars of the high-jumping horse circuit, in love with the beasts they both prize and mistreat. Mears enters the very sinews of these horses, and her prose, as horse and rider soar, reaches an almost operatic intensity. The unspeaking creatures among whom the Nancarrows live act as both chorus and witness to the humans who think they own their earth. The Aboriginals are always there, too dark for acceptance by the whites who have displaced them. They are like ghosts, peopling the land that Mears loves to describe, to paint in all its lights and moods.

In these formidable strengths there are weaknesses. Mears’s relentless capturing of the blues of Australian skies makes one long for cloud. She marks time by the blossoming and fading of the flowers on the jacaranda tree. These preoccupations are persistent. A reader can feel drowned by her tone, her repetitions. Her insistent foot on the piano too often holds the same notes, uses the same words – she does not avoid sentimentality, but then neither did Dickens. Many moments jar but it’s all worth it: this is a powerful, intricate novel of true originality. We must take such an individual voice as it comes, and be grateful for it.

Carmen Callil
Carmen Callil is the founder of Virago Press. Her books include Lebanese Washing Stories and Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family & Fatherland.

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