Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread

resized_9781742376295_224_297_FitSquareTrigger warning for survivors of childhood sexual assault.

There aren’t too many books I can honestly say have changed my life, but Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread is one of them.

I first came across this title in 2012 when participants of the Australian Women Writers Challenge posted their reviews. Eleven reviews appeared that year, the vast majority of which were laudatory. This was a special book, I realised. It could sneak inside your soul, break your heart, move even the most prosaic reviewer to poetry.

Opening the beautiful dust jacket with its glimpse of a galloping horse, I began to read, only soon to slam the book shut again. The initial pages are so horrifically distressing, and yet so beautifully told, I knew I’d need to be stronger to withstand the emotional onslaught.

A few weeks ago I tried again. This time, I persisted. I read about how in the early twentieth-century a young Aboriginal girl, Noah, finds herself in an intolerable situation, battles through as best she can, has children before she’s fully grown up, and marries a man who, like her, is a champion horse rider. I read of Noah’s strength as mother, farmer and farrier, as her husband Roly succumbs to a mysterious illness, the birth of her daughter Lainey who, like Noah herself, has the talent to become a champion rider. I read how the events of those first few pages haunt Noah through the years until she at last comes to terms with them.

For me the beauty of this story isn’t in the plot. It isn’t even in the language – though that is exquisite. It’s in the effect it has had on me personally. One of the facets of certain kinds of childhood sexual assault that many people don’t understand is how survivors can respond. Often, the abuser has the child’s trust; sometimes, the abuser is just about the only person ever to have shown the child kindness; sometimes the child’s own nascent sexual feelings are stimulated by the sexual violation of their boundaries, so that they don’t even recognise the abuse as abuse. They respond to it as if it were love.

Mears has depicted the complexity of this childhood response with remarkable sensitivity. Her portrayal of Noah as a survivor is done with such understanding and compassion that I find myself not only in awe at her skill, but also immensely grateful. I finished this book with a remarkable sense of freedom. For years, I have been filled with rage at my abuser. Mears reminded me of the love I’d once felt, and the reasons for that love. For some strange reason, accepting this reality, opened up a space where, it seems, forgiveness may be possible. We are all capable of being abusers of one kind or another, Mears suggests; “hurt people hurt people”. It’s a remarkable gift for a writer to convey that reality with such a deep sense of compassion.

As its publisher’s page attests, Foal’s Bread has been nominated for and won an outstanding number of awards:

Short-listed, Adelaide Festival Award for Literature, Fiction, 2014
Winner, Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction, 2012
Winner, ALS Gold Medal, 2012
Winner, 60th Annual Book Design Awards, Best Designed Literary Fiction, 2012
Winner, The Age Book of the Year Award Fiction, 2012
Winner, Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction, 2012
Winner, Colin Roderick Award, 2012
Short-listed, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, 2013
Short-listed, Indie Awards, Fiction prize, 2012
Short-listed, Barbara Jefferis Award, 2012
Short-listed, Miles Franklin Literary Award, 2012
Short-listed, Nita B. Kibble Award, 2012
Short-listed, Australian Book Industry Awards Book of the Year, 2012
Short-listed, West Australian Premier’s Book Award, 2012

Having finally read it, I now know why.

~

This review forms part of my contribution to the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge and Aussie Author Challenge.

Author: Gillian Mears
Title: Foal’s Bread
ISBN: 9781742376295
Australian Pub.: November 2011
Publisher: Allen and Unwin

More meditation than murder: Sorry by Gail Jones

sorry-jones2Sorry is an unsatisfying book.

After seeing Kevin Rennie’s glowing review earlier this year, I had expectations. I loved Jones’ Dreams of Speaking, the first book I finished for 2012. I’ve heard great things about Five Bells. Sixty Lights has been working its way up my “to be read” pile. Then I was caught at my mum’s house last week without a book to read and saw Sorry on her bookshelf. I’d picked it up at a Lifeline fair and passed it on to her months ago. It seemed the perfect bookend for the year.

Yet I found myself struggling to concentrate and – I admit it – counting the pages to the chapter end.

It’s not the density of the language, though Rennie is right to point out that the book is peppered with old-fashioned phrases. I love Jones’ prose. I relish in her love of words, her passion for books and Shakespeare. The problem was the structure.

If I’d kept in mind as I read that it is “a bit of a murder mystery”, as Rennie calls it, I might’ve been more engaged. But I found little of the sense of urgency or curiosity I associate with that genre. Jones invites her readers into her tale with a graphic, disturbing opening only to abandon them, to let the narrative drift. It drifts across the Northern Territory in the war years of the early 1940s, across the lives of a displaced English couple and their run-wild child, the slow disappointments and cruelty of the anthropologist father and disintegration of his Shakespeare-obsessed wife, the child’s friendships with a succession of Aboriginal companions and a deaf-mute son of a neighbour. The novel gathers momentum with the Japanese bombing of Broome and comes to a denouement with the revelations of the truth behind the novel’s opening.

It is a good – perhaps even great – book. A book, Rennie says, that every Australian should read. But I was left… unsatisfied. The book is “about” things, important and interesting issues. It’s a meditation on language, reading and communication, on intimacy, race relations, prejudice, failure and forgiveness. With such noble themes, it should have moved me more. But what it’s not is the kind of tale I really like, a book that makes me feel intensely, that sweeps me away on a flood of emotion, as well as thought and imagination, and leaves me stranded and exhausted – and changed – at the end.

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

Ever since posting Margo Lanagan’s piece for the Australian Women Writers challenge, I’ve been looking forward to reading Kate Forsyth’s novel, Bitter Greens.

Forsyth isn’t a new author for me – year ago, I read and enjoyed the Witches of Eileanan, a series aimed at young adults – but Bitter Greens is the first adult novel of hers I’ve read. The novel ranges over two centuries, combines history and fairytale, and creates portraits of three different women: a real historical character, novelist Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, the girl fabled as “Rapunzel”, and her imagined captor and “witch”, the Venetian courtesan “Selena Leonelli”. It’s more ambitious than any of Forsyth’s Fantasy series, especially in its self-reflexive quality. Central to the tale are themes concerning the art of narrative, and the genesis and profession of story-telling. This ambitious structure is both a strength and a weakness.

While less than a third the way in I was spell-bound, the beginning of the novel didn’t quite sweep me away as I’d hoped. After a page introducing the chief story-teller, Charlotte-Rose, as a child, the narrative jumps to show her as a grown woman. This rapid shift didn’t allow me to get to know Charlotte-Rose, to care about her and know what she wants out of life. I felt little sense of the tragic irony I guessed Forsyth was trying to create, the sense that here is a great character destined to fall. As the book progressed, however, I enjoyed Charlotte-Rose more and more. Forsyth portrays her as a headstrong, sexually active woman, with enough self-interest, stubbornness and resourcefulness to pursue her career in defiance of the mores and life-threatening risks of her time.

I felt more immediate empathy for the other point of view characters, Leonella – the witch – and Margherita – the Rapunzel figure. In these threads of the narrative, Forsyth demonstrates her skill as a Fantasy writer, with the storytelling every bit as enchanting as fairytales of old.

~

This post completes my Aussie Author 2012 challenge, and is part of my ongoing contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge. AWW reviews of Bitter Greens include the following:

Kate wrote a guest post for Bree here: Bree 1girl2manybooks.

ISBN-13: 9781741668452
North Sydney, Vintage Australia (Random House) 2012
Borrowed from Avalon Community Library

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