‘Foal’s Bread’ by Gillian Mears

Foal's-Bread

Fiction – Kindle edition; Allen & Unwin; 368 pages; 2011.

A book about horses would not normally be my cup of tea (a startling admission for anyone who knows my professional background, shhhh, please don’t tell), but Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread — her first novel in 16 years — is more than just a story about equines.

A story about love, sex, joy, sadness…

It’s a story about love, sex, joy, sadness, jealousy and ambition. It’s about complicated families and the ways in which history often repeats itself within those families. It’s about the hardship of living on the land in the years between the wars, of milking cows and breeding horses, despite floods, drought and raging bush fires. But above all it’s about aspiring to better things — and chasing dreams.

When the book opens we meet 14-year-old Noah, a tomboy, and her father, Cecil, as the pair are coming to the end of a two-week job — driving a mob of pigs to market via horseback. It’s 1926 and the setting is rural New South Wales.

We soon learn that Noah has a love of horses and, specifically, of jumping them over high jumps — what we now tend to call “puissance” — on the equestrian showjumping circuit. And once the pigs have been loaded onto the boat that will take them to market in Sydney, Noah will be free to compete in the ladies’ highjump at Port Lake Show; her dad will compete in the men’s equivalent.

A shameful secret

But first the reader is let in on a shameful and sordid secret: Noah is pregnant and her Uncle Nipper, who has just died, aged 80, is the father. While her dad is off boozing in town for the evening, Noah gives birth alone in their camp by a creek with only the “pigs watching what was coming out from between her own legs”.

As an opening to a novel, this is quite a confronting — and shocking — scene. Even more so, when Noah just gets on with it, wraps the “rag doll” in a shirt, plants a kiss on its face, puts it in a butter box and sends it down river, never to be seen again.

A kind of triumphant relief was sweeping through her that it was done, the baby gone. She couldn’t realise that for the rest of her life she’d be watching Flaggy Creek spinning away from her, the fast waters making it disappear like a little bend-and-flag pony that’s forgotten to take the final turn.

All is not lost, however, because a week later Noah meets the man who becomes the love of her life: Rowley — known as Roley — Nancarrow, an Australian showjumping champion. He presents her with a foal’s bread, a bread-shaped piece of placenta that some foals have in their mouths when they are born, which is dried out as a good luck charm.

“In a high-jump foal, it’s a sure sign he’ll go to the heights’ for a galloper, fast,” explains Roley.

The charm works — for a little while, anyway. The pair marry, have children, set up home on the Nancarrow family farm and make plans to start their own showjumping team.

Grand sweeping drama

But in the tradition of grand sweeping dramas, life does not play out the way both Noah and gentle, kind-hearted Roley plan. Curve balls come in the form of a fiercely jealous and bullying mother-in-law, who does her best to drive a wedge between her son and Noah. One of their children is born disabled. And Roley, who survives a lightning strike, develops a numbness in his feet and legs which puts an end to his showjumping career.

There comes a point when Noah must run the farm unaided and this is when her emotional problems, so long repressed, manifest themselves in violent outbursts — usually directed at her horses, whom she treats cruelly — and alcoholic binges.

This probably sounds like a soap opera, but Mears refrains from emotionally manipulating the reader. Indeed, the novel is completely free of sentiment, but somehow, in giving her narrative such a strong sense of time and place, you get so caught up in the mood of Foal’s Bread that it’s hard not to care for the people she writes about. Yes, it’s a sad story (Lisa, from ANZLitLovers, says Foal’s Bread is not a book to ‘enjoy’”) — but there’s something about it that makes it a compelling read.

No neat solutions

What I admire most about Mears’ skill as a writer is that she never succumbs to offering her characters neat solutions. They are left to flounder, to muddle along; they feel flesh-and-blood real. The Nancarrow family are not great communicators. No one ever explains how they are feeling. But the way the characters talk — in a stilted, old-fashioned vernacular — seems to fit the mood of the story.

As much as I enjoyed following the trials and tribulations of this complicated, strange family, I was occasionally disoriented by the time shifts — for instance, one minute Noah is 14, the next she is 22 and happily married. And some of the prose feels slightly clunky — normally when Mears’ is filling in backstory for her characters or explaining some of the finer points of showjumping history.

The prose, in general, appears to be written in a deliberately old-fashioned style that takes some getting used to — for instance, “the”, as a definite article, is largely absent so that characters go to “main house” instead of “the main house”. (According to Helen Elliot’s review in The Age, “Foal’s Bread is written in the vernacular of the times”.) But once you get into the flow of it, the language works its charm.

I especially loved the way the narrative is tied to the land, and there are reoccurring motifs — the floodwaters, an always-blooming Jacaranda tree, heart-shaped items found in nature — that make it a particularly visual read.

A powerful book

Foal’s Bread is a powerful book and rightly garnered much critical acclaim. You can listen to a fascinating interview with the author on ABC Radio National’s The Book Show.

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17 thoughts on “‘Foal’s Bread’ by Gillian Mears

  1. I think it’s so cool I get to know more about Oz Lit through you Oz bloggers 🙂
    In the past I traveled to Australia several times (Oh how I would love to go again) and read quite a bit of Australian books but never really continued it. So it’s very interesting to me to learn more. And this really sounds like – you said – a powerful book! I will add it to my TBR list.
    Like you reading about horses is not really my cup of tea (I have Seabiscuit waiting for me for book club but I don’t know… 😉 but the story in its whole sounds very intriguing.
    Thanks for sharing!

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  2. Thanks, Cessie, glad I can help spread the word about Australian literature to an international audience!
    I see you’ve lived in Shanghai — I bet that was amazing. I visited China in 2010 and just loved it — Shanghai was definitely my favourite city.

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  3. WIll come back and read this review properly when I’ve read this book – in the next few months – for my reading group. Was so glad it was scheduled as I’m very keen to read it.

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  4. oh I love you review this Kim ,I heard an interview with the writer on abc book show ,it was a moving interview and I did wonder what the book was like and it seems it is moving too thanks Kim ,all the best stu

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  5. Hi Sue, I think this would make a terrific book group read, because there’s so much stuff to discuss. I think it’s also one of those books that stays with you, the characters and the time/setting of the story is just so vivid.

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  6. Thanks, Stu, I take it the interview you heard is the same one I’ve flagged up in my review above? If so, I agree it’s quite a moving interview. The author seems to have had a few demons/problems to grapple with.

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  7. Wonderful review. I’ve followed Gillian Mears for years, since we were published by the same small press many many years ago – Australian Short Stories. This sounds like a lavish read. Her books have always been rich to the core.
    Wish I had more time to read!!

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  8. I finished reading this a couple of days ago, Kim, and completely agree with your assessment – a wonderful, engrossing book. It took me maybe a chapter or two to get into the language but once I accepted the lack of “the” in the dialogue, it was no more troubling than all those “he”s in ‘Wolf Hall’. I really admired the way Mears managed to steer clear of sentiment and depicted everything in quite a gritty way, yet still gave us characters to really care about – so often you either get one or the other. The slightly gothic tone and the dramatic nature of the conclusion reminded me of the ending to another Australian novel I’ve read this year: Chris Womersley’s “Bereft”, only without (mercifully!) any talking ants, though I think “Foal’s Bread” is the stronger book.
    I’d certainly be keen to read more by Mears, though sadly none of her other books seem to be available in the UK. In the meantime it seems every time I read an Australian book I want to read another, so I am now thoroughly immersed in Andrew McGahan’s “The White Earth”.

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  9. “Gothic” is a good word to describe this book, I think. I’m yet to read “Bereft” although it’s been sitting on my bedside table since December!!
    It is a pity that more of Mears’ books aren’t available on this side of the world. I have had my eye on “The Mint Lawn” for some time; it’s been recommended to me by various people and was recently name-checked in a Triple Choice Tuesday.
    Let me know how you get on with the McGahan. I’ve tended to steer clear of his books after I read his loathesome debut novel, the name of which escapes me now, probably because I wiped it from my memory!

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  10. I just checked and Andrew McGahan’s debut novel was “Praise” and I actually enjoyed that a lot… I was attracted to the descriptions I had read about it being a portrayal of people living aimless, purposeless lives, as speaking personally I’ve faced similar issues transitioning through life finding “my path,” my purpose. So I felt in aspects I could connect to these people trying to discover their place in the world.
    I’ve also enjoyed some of McGahan’s other work such as The White Earth. His best book for me.

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  11. Kim: I just finished reading “The White Earth” and thought it was very good indeed – I can easily see why it won the Miles Franklin in 2005, though admittedly I haven’t read any of the other shortlisted titles from that year.
    Anyway, I’ve had a look at the descriptions of McGahan’s other novels and I have to say I don’t fancy reading any of them, but I loved this one – perhaps it is not his typical book? Very powerful stuff, and yet again with that gothic tone (I googled “Australian Gothic” to see if that is actually a genre and it would seem so). The story is all about property and what constitutes ownership and how people are tied to the land (it is set at the end of 1993 when the Native Title Act passed into law); it’s also about obsession and elemental forces and how the past won’t – and can’t – stay buried. And it has some wonderful descriptions of the landscape of the Darling Downs in Queensland, and a great sequence where the boy in the novel, William – delirious with illness and hallucinating, wanders around his Uncle’s property on a kind of walkabout. The novel isn’t perfect – William, the 9-year old boy, often seems much older in the way he understands things, and some of the supporting characters lack depth, but despite those minor niggles it is still a cracking read and one that I would recommend.

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  12. Hi Kim – I have just finished this wonderful novel and wandered over here to see what you thought of it. I absolutely loved, loved it! Brillian read and am glad you explained about the definitive articles being left out – I found it a bit annoying but if its historically correct – then okay! I think this book is a totally different league to anything McGahan has written – perhaps only because I LOVED Foal’s Bread and McGahan’s not so much.

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  13. McGahan? Assume you mean Andrew?
    I’ve only read his first book — which must be more than 10 years ago now — and really didn’t like it at all.

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