Gillian Mears is an award-winning Australian author of short stories and novels. Her first novel, The Mint Lawn, won the Vogel in 1991, and The Grass Sister (1995) won a regional Commonwealth Prize for Best Book. (These are both now out of print). Her most recent work was a collection entitled A Map of the Gardens (2002), for which she won the Steele Rudd Australian Short Story Award. (See the API review). Mears is not a prolific author.
I have to admit that I was making rather heavy weather of her new novel Foal’s Bread until I stumbled across an old article by Murray Waldren that goes some way to explaining aspects of the characterisation that puzzled me*. The story, of two generations of the Nancarrow family, is quite shocking in places, with scenes of brutal violence, sexual assaults on children and abhorrent cruelty to animals. On top of that, the saga of this unfortunate rural family in the interwar years is replete with jarring episodes that depict a complete lack of connectedness between the characters. They do a lot of talking in an awkward inarticulate dialect, but they don’t communicate. What’s more, the central characters, Noah and her husband Rowley – despite being champions in the show-jumping circuit – seem somehow diminished, as if any joie-de-vivre has been suppressed. Reading this book feels a bit like looking at washed-out sepia photographs from the Depression era.
The Waldren interview isn’t dated but it refers to The Grass Sister being on the verge of release, so it must have been about 1995. Waldren quotes Mears as saying ‘Masochism really intrigues me. The notion of affliction and why women become so abject and passive, especially in country towns.’ He notes that she’s interested in patterns within relationships of dominance and subjection, of avoidance and pretence. There are also autobiographical aspects of Mears’ life which perhaps explain her interest in May-September relationships.
Well, The Grass Sister was published 16 years ago and this is a different book but based on what Waldren says, I can see similar themes**. The central character Noah is a very damaged human being, passive to the point of self-destruction and incapable of expressing her desires. Rowley, a champion himself and a fair bit older than her, is attracted to her because of her childlike demeanour and her precocious athletic skills. She’s just been through an extraordinarily traumatic experience but she represses all of that, marries him and abandons her passion for show-jumping to do child-bearing instead until the choice is made to have no more. (As women did, in those days, abandoning careers, hopes, and passions.) Noah never tells Rowley, or anyone else about what had happened to her.
Waldren says in this article that Mears had a habit of assuming that her allusions would be understood; and I’m still puzzling over why she named the central character, a female, with the Biblical name Noah, which apparently means either ‘rest’ or ‘comfort’. It puzzles characters in the book too, and Rowley suggests that it was meant to be Noa, one of the five daughters of Zelophehad, or perhaps Norah, and things perhaps went wrong in the registration process. Septimus makes mocking jokes about the couple needing an ark if they live in the hut by the creek, and indeed there are floods in the novel, not to mention other disasters inundating the family one way or another, but I think I’d be drawing a long bow to suggest that Noah’s marriage to Rowley is an ark of safety which enables her to survive until it fails. (Another indirect allusion is a kind of ‘baby-in-the-bulrushes’ tale, but it’s without a resolution, and I interpreted the recurrent memories of this traumatic event as an allusion to the pain of relinquishing mothers).
Rowley has a nasty old mother called Minna who doesn’t approve of Noah’s family (with good reason) and she bullies Noah relentlessly. There are maiden aunts who are peacemakers of a sort, but Aunty Ralda’s idea of comfort is to endlessly bake cakes. Noah never has a female confidante or friend, and before long, when fate intervenes to incapacitate Rowley, her relationship with him is compromised too. Often, there’s ‘no use saying’ something; objections are suppressed; ideas are quelled and love isn’t expressed. Noah just lets others make decisions for her and Minna’s greatest triumphs are when she succeeds in taking over the care of the children.
Rowley, even before his disability, is weak too, though the cause and effect in his case is less clear to me. Noah’s behaviour is entirely consistent with what we know of the long-term effects of the trauma she experienced: passivity, feelings of worthlessness, guilt and confusion about love; self-destructiveness and abuse of alcohol or drugs. Quite why Rowley stands up for himself and his family only when he insists on marrying Noah and when he refuses to have his son George institutionalised I am not sure. Perhaps when he was away on the horse-jumping circuit he found himself able to turn a blind eye to his mother’s tyranny. Later on, he is subsumed by denial and fear about his mysterious ailment; he is too preoccupied with his own feelings of inadequacy to help his wife deal with her demons, (if indeed he knew what they were) and he retreats to maternal care in his hour of need.
Foal’s Bread is not a book to ‘enjoy’, but I suspect that it will be one of the most talked-about novels of this publishing year. Mears is renowned for her cathartic style and for the way she has ‘cannibalized’ her own life in her fiction. How readers will interpret that remains to be seen, but it’s a very powerful book. Press on through the early bits, it’s worth it.
*Later, I found another article by Janet Hawley in the SMH which alludes to Mears own health problems. This article is dated 2002 when Mears had just finished the first draft of Foal’s Bread, and it amplifies uncanny and disconcerting aspects of Rowley’s mysterious ailment in the novel. It’s a rather sobering experience to read it.
** I read both The Mint Lawn and The Grass Sister in the years before I kept a reading journal, but I can’t really remember anything about them except that I liked The Mint Lawn enough to buy The Grass Sister when it came out.
Update July 5, 2012
Foal’s Bread has won the 2012 ALS (Australian Literary Society) Gold Medal.
Author: Gillian Mears
Title: Foal’s Bread
Publisher; Allen & Unwin, 2011
Source: Review uncorrected proof copy (which is why I can’t copy any Sensational Snippets) courtesy of Allen & Unwin