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foals-breadFoal’s Bread by Gillian Mears was published 2011. It won the 2012 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction, the 2012 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction, and was short-listed for the 2012 Miles Franklin Award.

This is the summary from the Allen and Unwin website:

‘Foal’s Bread ‘tells the story of two generations of the Nancarrow family and the high-jumping horse circuit prior to the Second World War. A love story of impossible beauty and sadness, it is also a chronicle of dreams ‘turned inside out’, and miracles that never last, framed against a world both tender and unspeakably hard.’

The novel is set in a fictional northern NSW town called Wirri. Noah, a fourteen-year-old girl whose mother died after birthing her, is as harsh and rugged as the world in which she is growing up. She is neglected by her alcoholic father and in the Preamble, the reader learns that ‘… in her fourteen-year-old womb a dead uncle’s baby grows …’.

Noah gives birth to the child alone and by a river. She approaches the delivery in much the same way she approaches the birth of the farm animals, and the prose is just as practical, without sentiment.

‘Standing up, still connected to that which all of a sudden had slithered out, wild with relief and panic, she could see the cord glinting white and blue. She cursed for her knife. Searching with her fingers found a piece of quartz with an edge that felt sharp enough. Sawed it back and forth, then, because that clearly wasn’t going to work, picked up the baby and walked wide-legged, hunting away that young boar coming in too close. Found her belt with its knife. Cut cord with a flick of her wrist.
‘Stick you in snout with this if you come a step closer,’ she warned another pig.’

But Noah is nuggety and resilient—she has to be—and completely unaware that she’s been abused. I ached for her, even as she considers killing her baby. Instead, she washes him and sets him adrift on the river in a butter box:

‘Though she had no memory of her own mother, who’d died soon after Noah came into the world, or of any kiss with the exception of Uncle Nipper’s after he’d tanked up on rum, she found herself crouching down. Keeping it in the box, she held the morsel of a baby up to her face.
Allowing her mouth, her eyes, to fill with a feeling hitherto only bestowed on the eyelids of foals, she gave him a soft and squeaky kiss.’

Noah never forgets ‘the ‘little mister‘ she set adrift, and he’s never far from her thoughts. I must say, I don’t think I’ll ever forget him either. Also never far from her thoughts is her uncle:

‘She was remembering her Uncle Nipper, his whiskery old voice showing her what he called the little miracles of the bush. One spring it was a red-capped robin, dead but perfectly preserved in a fallen tree; on another day, a nest lined by some busy little bird’s beak which had collected her hair and his, interweaving the white and the gold with bark and spider webs.
Uncle Nip’s hands with the missing fingers, she was remembering those too, swarming here, swarming there and swarming everywhere. And not just when he was playing his accordion. Loving her. Making her special, that Uncle Nipper with his eyes so stained and straining for what he called his glory that Noah had sometimes thought they were gunna pop right outta his head.’

Shortly after this, Noah meets Rowley, a champion show-jumper. The two pair up and join the show-jumping circuit of the 1930s. Together, they become a successful team, and their photo even appears on a biscuit tin. They fall in love, and Noah knows happiness for the first time. Yet even in her happiness, her thoughts return to Uncle Nip:

‘As stealthy as the fox slipping around the front vegetable garden, she felt the body of her new husband shifting across to love her.
It made her feel beautiful in a far different way to how it had been with old Uncle Nip. Git out of me head, ya old rogue, she thought. You don’t belong in this starry new bed.’

More sadness and tragedy awaits as Noah and Rowley have children, and Rowley contracts a mystery illness, but I won’t give away any more of the plot …

This is a beautifully crafted novel and I can’t do it justice in a review like this—it needs a thesis. It’s told in an old Aussie vernacular, with some words that I’d never heard before and only caught the meaning through context. It is very literary in style, but there’s plenty of action to sweep the reader along.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel as courageous as this. It’s not an easy read, because of the confronting issues and the style takes a little while to get used to, but as I read on, the characters and their lives crept under my skin and into my heart.

This novel is worthy of all the accolades it has received. It’s sad, but keep reading because there is a kind of redemption at the end …

‘Just every now and then,’ he explained, ‘a foal is born with something that looks like a little slice of bread in its mouth … Fact is, no one knows what it is exactly. In a high-jumper foal, it’s a sure sign he’ll go to the heights; for a galloper, fast.’

‘Foal’s Bread’ by Gillian Mears, Allen and Unwin, 2011  $32.99

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This is my fifth review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014. For my other reviews in 2014 and 2013, see here.

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