My Irish convict forebear, James Boland, died falling from a horse, (fortunately after he, like a good Irish Catholic, had numerous offspring, one of whom led to me). Perhaps that is why, when I went for my first (and only) horse ride a few years back, ironically in the northern New South Wales hinterland where Foal’s Bread is set, I was terrified of falling off. Perhaps it was in my DNA. And even though I think horses are the loveliest animals, I had since assumed that nothing would ever persuade me to get back on one again.
There has been plenty said elsewhere about Gillian Mears’s Foal’s bread—and rightly so. Recent winner of the Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction—as well as some other major Australian literary prizes, including the ALS Gold Medal—the story has an intriguing structure and narrative style, both of which I wanted to focus on given the weight of plot summaries that exist elsewhere. There is a short ‘preamble’ of some two-and-a-half pages, in which some unknown narrator introduces us to the setting of One Tree Farm and the horses that run across its bitter ground, ending with a warning, to ‘watch out you don’t cry’.
There is a troubled heart at the centre of this book. It belongs to Noah (Noh), who, when the story properly commences in 1926, is a fourteen-year old girl giving birth to her dead uncle’s baby in the creek of the farm that would, by coincidence, one day be her home. Unable to see how she might keep the boy, she places it in a butter box and pushes him off into the waters and watches it disappear, all the while knowing that though it may vanish from view, the scene will play over and over in her mind for the rest of her life. Though she has had the most appalling initiation into adulthood, she is a spirited girl with a gift for horses—in particular: riding them over high jumps. Soon she’s making waves at the local fairs, despite her itinerant father’s alcoholism.
It was while riding a horse at a local fairground that her future husband, Rowley (Roley) Nancarrow spots her. Roley is the Australian horse high-jumping champ. Though much older than Noh—and against the wishes of his forceful mother, Nin—he eventually marries Noh and takes her back to the extended family’s home: One Tree Farm. The single tree is a jacaranda, beautifully depicted throughout the novel, from ‘antique seeming grace’ through to a ‘purple cloud’. The evocation of the harsh and unforgiving landscape is something that Mears does so well.
I spent much of the time reading thinking about the narration. The preamble is an unidentified omniscient narrator, or so it seems. The bulk of the story is written in what I could only call ‘multiple close third person’. There’s also a strange widening ‘aperture’ as we move along: at first we have Noh’s point of view and then Roley’s, but after their daughter Elaine (Lainey) is born the number of points of view start to increase and by the end we are getting into everyone’s head. In lessor hands it might have been a disaster, but Mears somehow makes the flitting in viewpoints work. The reason is, of course, the power inherent in the story itself. It gripped me and wouldn’t let go. With the pain that Noah carries from her upbringing, there was bound to be trouble later in life. She and Roley share a joyousness in their initial union, but so many plans go to waste after Roley is (again!) hit by lightning and begins to suffer debilitating health problems. I couldn’t help but think of Mears’s own health battles as I read—the sadness of having to give up the thing that defines him: riding horses. But the real debilitation comes in the form of a lack of communication between Roley and Noh. There’s no outlet for erroneous perceptions and cruelling resentments. These are very flawed characters and perhaps that makes them all the more real.
The final ‘act’ of the three-part structure is a ‘coda’, which … hmmm, while lovely in its own way, may not have been necessary. Enough said; I don’t want to give anything away.
Foal’s Bread is not a ‘fun’ read—there is violence against people, against horses; there is incest; there is hardship. But all of that is perfectly architected; it is not gratuitous; it has its place. Moreover, there are moments of great joy. The exhilaration of horse jumping leaps off the page. Overall, it is a deeply affecting and rewarding read. And yes, by the end, I was wondering how I might find myself a horse and give it another go. That said, I think I’ll leave the jumps for the Nancarrows!
Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears
Allen & Unwin
Source: the local municipal library