"If there had ever been a time when she hadn't had the jumping dream she couldn't remember it..."
Gillian Mears’ searing novel of Australia, Foal’s Bread, was sixteen years in the making. It was published in late 2011 with the publishers Allen & Unwin, and then proceeded to win the 2012 Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction and The Australian Literary Society’s 2012 Gold Medal while also winning or being shortlisted for eleven other Australian prizes. While apparently still not available in bookstores in the U.S., it is available new or used from mostly overseas sellers on Alibris, Amazon, or Barnes & Noble. It is worth seeking out. It is high on my list of “Best of” fiction reads for 2013.
This unforgettable saga of a horse woman and her family living in rural New South Wales begins in 1926 with motherless Noey on a pig drive with her pa, Cecil. Her father is proud of her: “wasn’t no horse too tricky that my daughter couldn’t git over a…ladies’ high jump.” So the two of them sign up for the Port Lake Show, one of many such country shows all around Australia in the late summer and fall. Noey is fourteen, and ”built small…she was like a pony come out of the scrub. The hair on it just like a sun-bleached flaxen mane.” At that show Noah meets her future husband, Roley, a consistent winner on the showjumping circuit.
Hard-hitting and psychologically complex, this fiction centers around a fully realized and unrepentantly sexual woman. She is both grasping and generous. She feels more than she expresses and bears as much as she is able. She is tender and terrible in jumping the hurdles in her life, bringing us the sense of a whole person. She is unable to keep her husband and all three children safe from harm, and this knowledge weighs on her.
There are several daring, disturbing, and thought-provoking themes running through this novel, one of which is sexual love for a much older partner. Mears has us wrestle with our feelings about this to some effect. We are unsure what to make of her characterization of the love between Noey and Uncle Nip, and this adds to the complicated feelings we experience while we read. It is quite thrilling to be once again unsure of oneself when presented with the power of her storytelling.
The story itself is rounded and full, holding all the complicated emotions, joys, and disappointments of real life. The language is strong and farm-style frank. We watch two generations on one family farm over a period of some eighty years. The baby George, born “special” and a little simple, makes his family’s lives more joyous than they might otherwise have been because he reflects their love back two-fold. Special, indeed. Roley, Noah’s showjumping husband, struggles with despair as a wasting disease hijacks his limbs. Noey charts his decay, and denied the comfort of her husband’s body, passes through every stage of grief. Suppression of her natural tenderness causes her personality to twist.
The passage of time is marked through the growth and seasonal change of a jacaranda tree, for under its spreading branches and purple blossoms major events are marked. The tree lives on through drought and flood, and just becomes more beautiful as it ages. I still wonder why Mears ended the book the way she did, for I didn’t think her ending was as inevitable as she made it feel, but I concede it does show once again the confusion and emotional distress tearing apart an older Noey.
After finishing this book, you are likely to be curious about the author, rural New South Wales, and the early days of showjumping when obstacles were stacked impossibly high and the country shows were exhilarating and extraordinary. Mears explains her research and her writing in this audio interview with the ABC Book Show host, Anita Barraud. Mears herself knows something about an unexplainable muscle-wasting disease, for she has struggled herself with Multiple Schlerosis for some years. The mystery and arbitrariness of that disease forces a furious frustration on all that come in contact with it.
And what is a foal’s bread? It is not exactly clear, but it appears to be a lump of tissue found within a foal’s placental birthing sac. Dark, hard, and heavy at the birth, it can be dried out, passing through stages until it is light colored and lightweight. It is a rare enough find to be considered a lucky event.
You can buy this book here: Tweet