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Gillian Mears, Foal’s bread (Review)

February 29, 2012
Gillian Mears' Foal's bread

Foal's bread cover (Courtesy: Allen & Unwin)

Foal’s bread is Gillian Mears’ first novel in around 16 years, though she has published short stories in the interim. This is a shame because she is a beautiful writer, particularly when she writes about the place she knows best, the farms of the New South Wales north coast.

Foal’s bread is about the Nancarrow family. Most of it takes place between 1926 and around 1950, as it follows the fortunes of Noah (Noey/Noh), her husband Roley (Rowley), and the extended family with which they live. Their main business is dairying, but their passion is the sport of horse high jumping. At the beginning of the novel, Roley is an Australian high jump champion and Noey a young 14 year-old girl with promise. They meet, marry (early in the novel, so no spoilers here) and start working hard to achieve their dream of having their own high jumping team. Hope on, Hope ever, is their motto. That’s the broad plot; the story is far more complex.

This is an archetypal story of strong country people coping (or not) with “luckiness and unluckiness” in life. In its depiction of hardship, stoicism and the will to survive in rural families, it reminded me – in tone if not in story – of Geoff Page’s The scarringThe hardship may come from different quarters, but in both there is a sense of forces out of one’s control combining with things of the characters’ own making. That mix – of characters’ judgement or behaviour clashing with luck (usually bad) – tends to make for a good story, in the right hands. It’s a bit Shakespearean in a way, the clash of character with “the elements”.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 Badge

Australian Women Writers Challenge (Design: Book'dout - Shelleyrae)

In Foal’s bread, the “bad luck” has many sources, some human and some natural, such as incest, lightning strikes, giving birth to a disabled child, war and drought. How the characters cope with the trials confronting them is the core of the novel. Unfortunately, more often than not, they don’t cope very well. Why? Mainly due to their very human failings. Noey and Roley, whose marriage commences with great love and big dreams, don’t know how to communicate when calamity hits. Noey’s mother-in-law, Minna, lets her jealousy (“of the happiness she’d never seen before”) get the better of her and prefers to increase the tension between her son and his wife rather than to ameliorate it.

By now you’ll be thinking this sounds like a miserable story, and in some ways it is. But it’s not all darkness. While the novel has an almost elegiac tone, its movement is towards light. It has a three-part structure. There’s a very short Preamble which sets a tone of harshness and brutality with its references to incest, bushfires, floods, and animal cruelty.”Watch out you don’t cry” we are warned. Then there is the bulk of the novel in which the story of Noey and Roley is played out. This is followed by a Coda, set some 50 years later, in which we learn that “the old voices remain … funny, flinty, relentless”. These voices are carried into the future by Lainey, the strong, resourceful daughter of Roley and Noey, “her mother’s daughter through and through”.

A strong story, but what gives this novel its real power is the writing. Mears mixes the rough, ungrammatical country-speak of the era with glorious, rhythmical language describing the magpies, butcherbirds, trees, creeks and hills of One Tree Farm. The “one tree” is a jacaranda, and it features throughout the novel. It could almost be, dare I say it, a character. Early in the novel, when all is full of hope, it quivers “to create the feeling of a big bosomed woman wanting to waltz”. Later, as things start to collapse, it loses its leaves, but at the end “the old tree lives on … like a huge purple cloud hiding the rooflines”.

And then, of course, there are the horses. Reading this book reminded me a little of reading Tim Winton’s Breath. Mears does for horse high-jumping what Winton did for surfing. She made me feel the joy and beauty of the jump, of pushing oneself to achieve just that little bit more in a risky sport, of having a dream that keeps you going, of doing “the impossible”. Mears, like Winton, knows her subject inside out, and you feel it in her writing.

I fear I haven’t done the book justice. I’ve not really described its complex plot. I’ve named only a few of its large cast of colourful characters. It’s an ambitious book with big themes and a big style. Not everyone loves it. Some find the dialogue tricky or some descriptions overdone; some think the ending is disappointing; some think it’s stereotypical in places. I think none of these things. I’d love to know what you – if you’ve read it – think!

Gillian Mears
Foal’s bread
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2011
370pp.
ISBN: 9781742376295

(Uncorrected proof copy received from Lisa of ANZLitLovers in a blog giveaway)

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27 Comments leave one →
  1. February 29, 2012 2:40 pm

    I agree, this book will divide readers; it’s like strong drink, some can swallow it, some prefer a softer brew. Incest, natural calamities, terminal illness, disability, death, betrayal, animal cruelty, self-destruction — it is indeed a Shakespearean plot, but as in Shakespeare’s plays, there is comedy, love, lust, lyricism, realism, aching beauty and desire, and no holds are barred. I think it is Miles Franklin material. I hope the judges see that too.

    • February 29, 2012 2:53 pm

      I’m with you right down the line Christina … and would like to see it shortlisted at least for the Miles Franklin. I think you’ve reviewed it too? I will pop over and have a look. I tend not to read reviews until I’ve written mine but I think I saw one come through from you via my subscription.

  2. February 29, 2012 2:41 pm

    I read this when it first came out and found it … difficult. Part of that maybe because some of the issues addressed are trigger issues for me, but it was a relief for it to be over for me.

    Having said that, I did appreciate several things in the novel – the language and some of the symbolism. I just read through my posts about the book (which I blogged about over a period of four weeks as I was participating in a readalong) and there are certain parts that have stayed with me.

    I suspect that if I was to reread, knowing about the hot button issues in advance, I would possibly have a different reaction to it than I had originally.

    • February 29, 2012 2:58 pm

      Oh Marg … I’m sorry if there are buttons there for you. I’ve read some of your readalong groups reviews — not all of them — and note that some of the issues raised in the readalong were raised by my reading group last night. (If you’re interested in a brief report of our discussion, click on the Minerva Reads blog in my blogroll, to get to our group blog).

      It would be interesting to see what you thought on a second read.

  3. February 29, 2012 6:10 pm

    I’m very curious to read this as I remember Mears’ first works which I liked very much, especially with regard tolandscape and family. It does sound like a nourishing read!

    • February 29, 2012 7:20 pm

      Nourishing is an interesting word, Catherine, but it is so I think – if you have a mind open to the bigger picture rather than the harsh details.

  4. Hannah permalink
    February 29, 2012 8:56 pm

    I tried reading this and couldn’t get into it but you have made me want to persevere with it. I have some time off this week so I might give it another go. Thanks.

    • February 29, 2012 9:47 pm

      Oh good Hannah. What was it that got you stuck? The dialogue? Or something else. I found it a page turner, but clearly not everyone did/does!

  5. March 1, 2012 6:25 am

    Oh this sounds so good! I hope it gets published in the US. I like the cover very much too but then I am genreally a sucker for books with beautiful horses on the cover.

    • March 1, 2012 9:29 am

      I hope so too Stefanie. And I think the cover has been shortlisted in some book design awards. I like it too.

  6. March 1, 2012 8:46 pm

    As soon as I started reading your review, I immediately started thinking of The Scarring. I think elegiac is something to aspire to in writing…. and naming a book for both horse and food can’t hurt either. :P

    • March 1, 2012 9:34 pm

      I saw Geoff Page tonight Hannah and told him. He’s read Foal’s bread too … partly because he knows Mears and partly because it’s set in a similar region. He said Mears father spoke at his father’s funeral! I think he was interested in my drawing the comparison. I’m glad you saw it too.

  7. Meg permalink
    March 2, 2012 2:59 pm

    I will read it on your recommendation Sue, but there are seven people ahead of me at the library. Sounds good.

    Meg

    • March 2, 2012 5:31 pm

      Oh good, Meg. Do come back and let me know. You are so wel read in Aussie lit I’d love to know what you think of it.

  8. March 3, 2012 6:09 pm

    I think you’ve done the book justice – a lovely post, and a lovely book, I thought.

  9. March 8, 2012 6:44 am

    thanks for sharing sue I heard her interviewed about this book and her own life so sad she isn’t well this book sound fascinating thou and still does after your review ,all the best stu

    • March 8, 2012 9:30 am

      Thanks Stu … that’s a great comment ie that my review hasn’t changed your view that the book sounds fascinating because that’s certainly my intention.

  10. Meg permalink
    March 21, 2012 3:00 pm

    I read Foal’s Bread last week. It took awhile to hook me in, but once it did I couldn’t put it down. So sad and yet such a good read. Methinks, The Miles Franklin List is going to be a very good one this year. Thanks for another good read.

    • March 21, 2012 10:43 pm

      Sad and yet a great read is a good description, Meg. I’m looking forward to the Miles Franklin list this year … and, oh dear, the year is going so fast it won’t be long will it?

  11. April 11, 2012 7:09 pm

    Officially excited to read this book now! Thanks for the review.

    • April 11, 2012 7:34 pm

      Oh good Deborah … I look forward to hearing what you think. Most people who read it like it I think. It’s strong writing with forceful characters.

  12. July 26, 2012 11:57 am

    I found this a very moving read, and quite challenging to write about. I enjoyed reading your review.

    • July 26, 2012 7:15 pm

      Why thank you Jennifer. I’m glad you enjoyed my review. It was one of those reviews that was a pleasure to write, because I liked the book so much, and hard to write because I wanted to say so much! It’s a book that lasts with you for a long time isn’t it.

  13. Ian permalink
    July 7, 2013 11:31 am

    I’ve just finished this book and loved it, much more than Gillian Mears’ other novels that I have read. It didn’t remind of Winton’s ‘Breath’ so much as ‘Cloudstreet’ (although it’s many years since I read that) with it’s depiction of family relations, the affect of disability and living difficult yet spirited lives. I thought the characters wonderful and their inability to articulate their feelings for each other heart-wrenching and disastrous, but truly written. Although the story is sad and hard I found that their spirit made it a very uplifting read.

    • July 7, 2013 12:48 pm

      Oh, I’m glad you liked it too Ian … There was an uplifting element I agree. It was really just the way she made us feel the joy and risks of horse high. Jumping that reminded me of Breath and surfing. I can see what you are saying about the hardscrabble lives and Cloudstreet.

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  1. Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears « Musings of a Literary Dilettante's Blog

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