Fiction – Kindle edition; Allen & Unwin; 368 pages; 2011.
A book about horses would not normally be my cup of tea, but Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread — her first novel in 16 years — is more than just a story about equines.
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.
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 a 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. Curveballs 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 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 offers 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.
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.