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.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

In This Issue

Nigel Thomson, 'Manoly Lascaris', 1994 (detail). Oil on linen. Private collection. Image courtesy of the Manly Art Gallery and Museum.

No one comes to see me now

Manoly Lascaris and Patrick White’s ghost

Army medic Jacqui de Gelder ready to heal or harm as necessary, Afghanistan, September 2009. © Gary Ramage / Newspix

The lady killers

Women in the military

No script, no storyboard

William Kentridge

Aussie battlers demand a fair go at the Occupy Melbourne protest, 15 October 2011. © Mal Fairclough / Fairfax Syndication

Left behind: why the right keeps winning


Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality