Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Gillian Mears' Foal's bread

Courtesy Allen & Unwin
Foal's bread is the second novel by Gillian Mears that we've read in our group. The first was her first novel, The mint lawn, which those of us around back then remember enjoying (though we don't remember the details). We were not sorry we decided to read this, her third novel and first after 16 years, because we had a humdinger of a discussion! Such a humdinger, in fact, that I barely know where to start.

Let's start with the plot. The novel tells the story of the extended Nancarrow family from around 1926 to the early 21st century, though most of it takes place in the 1940s-1940s, tough years. It's set in the area Mears knows best, the dairy country of northeast New South Wales, around Grafton. The main characters are Noey, and the man Roley whom she marries. As well as being dairying people, they are horse people, high-jumpers in fact, and they have a dream - to establish their own high-jumping team to take around the show circuit. The story chronicles what happens to this dream as life's vicissitudes - some natural, some human, in origin - confront them. Some of the vicissitudes faced in this book include incest, lightning strikes, bearing a disabled child, and war.

So, what made it a great discussion? Particularly since most people liked it, and some loved it? Well, despite the general approval, there were queries and concerns. And there were those who didn't like it - was it "those" or just one? But she or they wasn't/weren't totally negative. In other words, this is a great book for readers to get their discussion teeth into!

First the positives. We liked the characterisation. We thought she controlled the story well ensuring that the drama didn't amok into overblown emotions. We liked her careful plotting, and the way she set up situations through parallels - two incest stories, two spaying stories, for example. We appreciated the way she conveyed complicated emotions, such as those of Noey for her incestuous Uncle Nip. We liked her evocation of the place and period, and the way she so viscerally conveyed the show jumping scene and the passions it engendered in those who took part. Overall, we felt she was a convincing, immersing writer.

What, then, about the negatives? Well, as you'd expect there was less consensus here. Some found the language/style problematic in places, pointing to long sentences which piled image upon image without giving the reader a chance to breathe. Others didn't notice such sentences! Some found the dialogue challenging and wondered whether it was true to the people of the period. Others felt it was authentic or, at least, evocative enough to feel authentic. Some felt she overused foreshadowing, foreboding. Others felt that she controlled this well, sometimes implying events that didn't eventuate such as an extramarital affair. Some felt the ending - particularly the "add-on" coda - was a little disappointing, while others thought it was very effective. And so the discussion raged (politely of course!) ...

However, rather than go on to detail all the specific things we picked up, I'll end on the discussion the novel sparked at the end of the night. It was about shame. Where does shame come from? What creates it? One member suggested that shame continues to be a strong emotion in rural communities. There are many feelings of shame in this book, but I'll just give a few examples. Roley feels shame about his illness. It prevents his going to war (compounding his shame), affects the achievement of their dream, hurts their marriage. Noey carries shame about her illegitimately born baby from a pre-marriage incestuous relationship. Shame, we discussed, is closely related to failure and guilt but is often not "rational". It is often related to not doing or being able to do the things society expects, the things that make for social cohesion. Things like marry and have children (which Roley's sisters don't do), go to war with your mates, and so on. If we all renege on these expectations, society could fall apart. But why is that when, through no fault of one's own a person can't meet society's expectations, they feel such shame? Shame and guilt ... nature or nurture?

Well, I think that's enough, so I'll close on one parting question. Gothic or elegiac? How would you describe this novel?


  1. Both! Though I hadn't really thought of it as Gothic, not that I'm a connoisseur of that genre; but I think of Gothic as dark, bizarre, exaggerated, larger than life, with themes of death, decay, despair, etc. Am I right? I think Foal's Bread also has strong elements of the comic, the lyrical, and though death and life are very closely interwoven in it, its redemptive climax, dark though it is, seems to put it in a class of its own. In terms of genre, I think it is a hybrid, and I think that's part of its singularity.

  2. Thanks for commenting Christina ... and what a diplomatic response! I'm more in the elegiac camp, though I can see why some might see Gothic in it. However, I see Gothic - even the modern interpretation - as being a bit more heavily and oppressively ominous than this. Like say Julia Leigh's The hunter. (Though I've only seen it, and not read it). Like you, I see this book as having the potential to be a classic but I suppose time will tell.

  3. Elated to see it has been short-listed! I haven't read All that I am yet (there are about 40 people waiting to read it in the library circuit) but I'm betting on Foal's Bread.

  4. It would be lovely to see it win. I think the last time a woman won was 2007 with Carpentaria. Winning is about the best, not gender, but Foal's bread is certainly an excellent read.


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