It’s taken me quite a few days to write this post. It wasn’t a matter of deciding whether or not I liked Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears. In many ways, there’s not much to ‘like’ – it’s bleak, tough, crushing. But it’s also brilliant. In fact, the first chapter of this stunning book will never leave me. It’s the start of a hundred little heart-breaks for the main character, Noah Childs, and as the reader I shared every last one with her.
Foal’s Bread tells the story of two generations of the Nancarrow family prior to the Second World War. The backdrop is the unforgiving farming country of rural New South Wales, a parade of country agricultural shows and the high-jumping horse circuit.
It’s not hard to see why this book has attracted so much attention (and why it won the Prime Ministers Literary Awards 2012 prize for fiction). There are dozens of glowing reviews – what can I add? Certainly no new insights but I can share what I loved most about Foal’s Bread.
First and foremost, that first chapter. It is devastating beyond belief. We meet Noah, a girl of fourteen, mustering pigs with her dad. They stop at One Tree Hill for the night where Noah first meets the Nancarrow family. Noah’s father heads for the pub, leaving Noah to look after the pigs. She does. But she also has a pain in her gut and squats in the cool water of a nearby creek where she gives birth to a baby. Her uncle’s baby.
“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… ‘Go on then.’ She waded out into the deeper water. Found the current. ‘Be good! Don’t fall out!’ In the moonlight the butter box went like a crazy toy, pulled quickly into the faster water of the Flaggy by the weight of its miniature boatman. But even as the boat and the baby disappeared around the creek’s bend, his forehead holding all the softness of her farewell, Noah’s face changed shape forever.”
Having abandoned her baby, I wasn’t going to abandon Noah. I grasped onto minor events along the way that gave Noah hope – a small windfall, the birth of a foal. I kept reading, all the while thinking about that baby floating down the creek in a butter box – hoping that something, anything, could repair this first, monumental heartbreak. Which of course nothing will. There are parts of the story where Noah is not at all likeable – in some of these bits Mears brings back a memory of the floating butter box (or as Noah refers to the baby, ‘her Little Mister’). But it’s hardly needed because you’re sharing Noah’s grief with every single word of this grim story.
And every single word of Foal’s Bread is beautifully crafted. I’m sure that for many readers, much of what they will enjoy or intensely dislike about this book is Mears’ use of the Australian vernacular. In less skilled hands, the language could sound crass or forced but Mears is poetic, her words rich (but not sentimental), painting a vivid and delicate portrait of a landscape that is in fact rough and unforgiving.
“‘And Nella,’ he said softly but urgently, his old name for her on his lips. As he put his arms around her she saw that even the moon looked softer up in its place in the sky. It was like one of Ralda’s new peppermint creams that you could take in your fingers to squeeze and roll. Hardly daring to believe, she kept her gaze on the moon.”
“”‘Now then,’ he said, turning around to hooroo Lainey and George, who’d stayed on the platform. Two jacaranda trees at the station were also in flower. All that lilac blossom gave Lainey the magical feeling that by the time her father did come home, he’d be as right as rain. As if miracles lay in the colour purple. What about calling a horse Jacaranda Girl? Wouldn’t that be a good one?”
Lastly, I liked what Mears did with the ending of the story. Without giving anything away, the ending was an interesting change of pace and I suspect was somewhat of a risk for the author.
It should be noted that there are themes of sexual abuse in this book. There’s also a number of scenes where animals are treated cruelly. I found the former very hard to read. Some reviewers have questioned Mears’ off-hand treatment of the sexual abuse but it is, without question, critical to so much of the story and the characters. I suspect the latter was in context of the period in which the book is set (be glad that we know better now).
5/5 Had I read this book a few weeks earlier, it would have made my Top 10 Book I Read in 2012 list.
There’s only one thing to be had with Foal’s Bread – gingernuts (the harder on the bite, the better).