Chris Womersley’s first novel, The Low Road won a Ned Kelly Award in 2008 but since I rarely read crime novels, I missed it. Bereft however is one of our ANZ LitLovers book group choices for 2011, and thus I have discovered this fine new author on the Australian scene.
Bereft is a fascinating novel for fans of the gothic. There is a crime, but the interest in this story is nothing to do with whodunnit. That’s obvious from early on; it’s the story of a man coming-to-terms with his own life that makes it such a compelling tale. The characterisation is memorable, and Womersley’s prose and imagery is so vivid that I found myself stopping to savour it often. My reading journal is full of superb quotations and images that I copied out by hand as examples of a writer in full control of his craft.
The girl sniffed and wiped a hand under her nose. She wore a ragged dress that might once have been blue but had faded to the colour of a week-old bruise. A pink cardigan, no shoes, toes like stubby shells at the end of her feet. She had a sharp chin, hobnail teeth hammered into the gums. (p69)
This grubby urchin materializes from the bush to appraise Quinn from the other side of his fire; cunningly, the author enlists his readers in her quest to remain a wild-child for reasons that become chillingly clear before long. Sadie Fox eventually overcomes her mistrust to become Quinn’s unlikely helpmeet as he returns to the scene of the unspeakable crime for which he has been convicted in the court of public opinion.
It’s a good title, Bereft. In 1909 Quinn fled Flint (an apt choice of name for a flint-hearted town) and eventually went to war. In the chaos he was reported missing presumed dead. Unmourned by his father Nathaniel who’s bereft of all feeling for his son, Quinn is bereft of home, family, ideals and peace of mind. His mother, exemplifying the universal unconditional love of mothers, is bereft too: her family is dead or dispersed and she’s alienated from her husband and his Calvinistic ideas about retribution. Sadie is bereft of family, friends and home; and the melancholy of an entire nation bereft after the Great War permeates the novel through manifestations of grieving which range from flashbacks to denial to seeking solace through spiritualism.
Quinn’s fear of pursuit is masterfully rendered as his past bleeds into the present:
Then, to his right, in the fire’s flicker, he made out something gathered about a low bush. It was several feet away, unclear in the darkness. He stared until he could see the glint of silver or brass. He tensed. A piece of cloth. A torn piece of cloth. Now a button. Two buttons. A man’s uniform, English by the look of it. He blinked and peered further. A hand, unattached to any limb, the wrist and gristle blackened where it had been ripped from the forearm. There was a muddy boot on the ground.
Then the snap of a twig behind him. (p65)
I can think of few books that I’ve read that so graphically depict the effects of war trauma as this one.
With its theme of vengeance, retribution and atonement, the book is aptly full of Biblical allusions, but there are also many references to literature – from Huckleberry Finn to the Lotus-Eaters in the Iliad and Mowgli from The Jungle Book as well. However it’s the gothic elements that interested me. It’s easy for writers to get a bit carried away with the gothic style but Womersley remains in control of it. As readers will know if they read my review of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, I tend to read the gothic novel with a sceptical eye, but I couldn’t fault the plotting and I admired the substitution of an ivy-covered miner’s shack for the usual ruined castle. (Australia can’t really do ruined castles because we don’t have any!) My only reservation had to do with the Lamb of God scene, which I thought was overdone, but that might just be because I’m fond of lambs…
PS Congratulations should also go to Womersley’s editor Aviva Tuffield at Scribe: she’s done a first-class job of editing Bereft.
There is a great review at The Resident Judge of Port Phillip which places Bereft in its historical context much better than I have.