2010, 264 p.
There are eras in Australian history which, in my imagination are flooded with light- the gold rushes is one; the time around Federation is another- when Australia seemed open to opportunities, hungry for change and with the future opening up before it. Then there are other low, muted, hold-your-breath times, and I think that immediately after World I would have been such a time. So much death and absence, felt so keenly at the intimate and everyday level and yet played out so far away: men returning broken, damaged and strangers to themselves, and the incomplete, unresolved grief about those men who failed to return. Then, overlaying all this is another winnowing as the Spanish flu sweeps the country, as if Death has been brought home from across the sea.
Bereft is set in this time. Quinn Walker returns from the front to his childhood town, Flint, in western New South Wales. There is no homecoming celebration: instead he skulks in the bush, too frightened to appear in public. Ten years earlier he had fled when his sister was found raped and stabbed, and he was accused of the crime that his father and uncle swore to avenge. Watching his house from a distance, he realizes that his mother is very ill, probably with influenza, and that his father, frightened of catching it too, spends little time at the home, sitting on the verandah outside his dying wife’s window. And so he is emboldened to approach the house when his father is not there, and his mother, not sure whether he is a hallucination or not, speaks with him. She has lost everyone- her husband to bitterness and the quest for revenge, her daughter to the slaying, her eldest son to Queensland. Quinn had just disappeared, confirming the rumours of his guilt and then was reported dead from the front- but now her younger son returns. There is the word ‘orphan’ for a child who has lost its parents, she says, but no word for a parent who has lost her children. Or, thinks Quinn, for a brother who has lost his sister. They are all just bereft.
He is being watched while he hides out in the bush. Sadie Fox, a dishevelled, fey little orphan knows many dark things, and Quinn does not know quite what to make of her- changeling? spirit? urchin? hallucination? In the face of so much bloodshed and pain, the line between life and death seems tenuous. It is a time when clairvoyants feed on unresolved grief, and when many people are open to spiritualism. Quinn’s own experience of the mud and the gas of the Front leaches into his present, and his own long absence from his home town means that his own identity is a vacuum.
Although Womersley has worked very hard in embedding the narrative within a particular time, I can see why this book has been described as ‘rural gothic’, along with other Australian novels that span right up to the 1970s and 80s- think Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones, Elizabeth Jolley’s The Well and Sonya Hartnett’s Surrender. I do wonder, though, if the easy interchangeability of this book with others set some 70 years later suggests that (a) country life and country people do not change at all, and/or (b) that he hasn’t quite captured early twentieth century relationships and interactions very clearly. Did people speak, move and interact in a qualitatively different way in 1919 compared with 1969? I’m not sure.
I can see continuities, too, with his first book The Low Road, in that they are both stories of escape and hiding. In both of them there is a sense of pursuit.
Bereft is one of the three books that have made the cut as the short-list for the Miles Franklin prize. All up, Bereft is a book that weaves many strands- historical fiction, a type of crime fiction, the supernatural, and small-town claustrophobia- and it does it well. So far for me, though, That Deadman Dance is the front-runner- although my record in picking the Miles Franklin winner is, so far, abysmal! I was right but disgruntled in 2009 and wrong and outraged in 2010.
7.5/10 (I think I prefer scoring out of 10)