I finished Foal’s Bread By Gillian Mears about a month ago but it has taken me all that time to be able to articulate my sentiments about the book. It is a difficult book to compress into the space of a review because it is a book that is bigger than the sum of its words, and it is bigger than my ability to write about it. But here goes.
Foal’s Bread was shortlisted for, and won, many awards last year. Mears is also one of my favourite essay writers – her essay Alive in Ant and Bee is a wonderful piece of writing. But I had never read any of her novels and so this seemed like a good place to start. It’s not the kind of novel I would normally pick up – my husband is quite into horses and I am not, so the idea of a horse book set in rural Australia in the late thirties and early forties made me curious to see whether I would connect with it. Connect with it I did.
It is a beautifully written book. It is also an emotional rollercoaster of a read. I cannot say I love this book, because it is not the kind of book you fall in love with. It is the kind of boook that is always with you, even when you are not reading it, because it climbs right down into the depths of human emotion and lays everything bare in a way that very few books do.
The opening scenes of the book are some of the most devastating I have ever read. Fourteen year old Noah gives birth to a baby in the middle of the night, by herself, in the river. She packs the baby into a butter box and sends it off downstream, imagaining everything from the crows picking out the baby’s eyes, to its fairytale rescue. The next day she is back on a horse, droving pigs to market. Suffice to say, the baby haunts both Noah and the reader for the rest of the book.
Then Noah, who likes to jump horses at country shows, meets fellow high-jumper Roley Nancarrow. Their love is described with such gorgeousness and gentleness that it feels special and wonderful, even magical, which is no easy feat considering how often and how badly love is written about elsewhere. This is the most uplifting part of the book. But always with the reader is the ghost of the baby, the ghost of how Noah fell pregnant, the ghost of what that has done to her, and what it has made her.
Then Roley gets struck by lightening and their world begins to disintegrate, piece by sad and brutal piece. I did have to put this book down from time to time, to take a breath, to move out of the sadness because it can at times feel unrelenting, punctured as it is by too brief moments of hope and happiness. And if I thought nothing could be more devastating than the beginning of the book, well, that was before I got to the end.
Mears’ characters are the most complex, the most understandably contradictory, the most well-crafted of any set of characters I have met in a book for a long time. And there are sentences in here that you just have to stop and re-read, such is their power. I can see many of the themes Mears examined in Alive in Ant and Bee come into fuller and starker relief in this book – themes of disability and ability, themes of both the healing qualities and the natural cycles of destructiveness found in the bush, and the theme of death’s omnipresence.
I worry that I have not done this book justice in this review because it is such a difficult book to write about. It’s the kind of book that I worry won’t be published a great deal in the future given the state of the publishing industry because it is literary and serious and almost unbearably sad. It rewards close and careful reading. It is also a difficult book to recommend because it might just break your heart the way it did mine. But that’s what makes it worth reading – it makes you feel and it makes you think and it makes you wiser. One thing I can guarantee is that, if you do decide to read it, you will not be able to forget it for a very long time.
Have you read Foal’s Bread? What did you think? If you’d like to know more abut Mears and her work, including her struggle with MS, this interview from the Sydney Writer’s Festival last week is superb.