Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 21, 2011

Bereft, by Chris Womersley

Miles Franklin c1940 (Source: Wikipedia)

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…

Angela Meyer reviewed it here, Sam Cooney has a brief review at Readings, but the best of them is by Thuy Linh Nguyen at Kill Your Darlings

PS  Congratulations should also go to Womersley’s editor Aviva Tuffield at Scribe: she’s done a first-class job of editing Bereft.  

Update 22.4.11
There is a great review at The Resident Judge of Port Phillip which places Bereft in its historical context much better than I have.

Author: Chris Womersley
Title: Bereft
Publisher: Scribe Publications 2010
ISBN: 9781921640605
Source: Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications 


Responses

  1. Sounds excellent Lisa … I’m not a big fan of crime or gothic, but I love the quotes you’ve provided. Original descriptions and lovely rhythm too.

    • Sue, that’s what’s so interesting about this book – it defies any assumptions about ‘gothic’ or ‘crime’. The writing is just breath-takingly good – I’ve never read anything like it!

  2. Lisa
    An excellent review and I am soooo looking forward to this coming up on our schedule. The quotes you have included are just exquisite. I have just read ‘The Low Road’ and I am urging you to read it also. Although it begins
    as a crime thriller it really goes much deeper and tells a human story
    about regret, addiction and the consequences of the choices we make in life. With two accomplished novels first up it really does make you excited about what Womersley is going to come up with next.

    • I think I”ll take your advice about The Low Road, Mr W is obviously a writer to watch!
      I think Bereft is going to make a great book for discussion – you’ve read it, so you can see how I’ve been very careful not to include any spoilers in the review but I’m very keen to discuss all sorts of issues arising from the story! Was it you who nominated it for the schedule?

      • Yes- I enjoyed The Low Road too, even though I don’t normally read crime novels. It was an excellent first novel, and it sounds as if his next book is just as good.

        • I’ve just got it from the library! Now *frown* all I need is the time to read it…

  3. Lisa
    I havent read Bereft yet and yes I did nominate this one for the schedule. I thought I would save it for closer to our discussion. I have recently subscribed to ‘Kill Your Darlings’ of which Chris Womersley has been a contributor with a short piece of fiction and I like his writing and definitely an author to watch.

    • Oh you’re in for a treat then!

  4. Huge apologies for my absence since Christmas – the non-computer life had more pressing demands on my time and energy, not least visits to far-flung relatives and additional grand-child minding.

    This sounds as though it was written by a thoroughly professional writer. The literary allusions provided an interesting layer of reflection by the sound of it. I am about to read a novel by Scottish “gothic” writer, Louise Welsh and look forward to delving into similarly dark places as Chris Womersley provide above.

  5. I was prompted by your link to read your review of the Mysteries of Udolpho – my, you did a thorough job on that one!

    Bereft sounds a not particularly cheerful read but is evidently well done. The literary allusions are always a sign that at least the author is well-read. I like your thought that Australian writers find it difficult to do ruined castles and so a miner’s shack has to do. Another fine review

    • Hi, Tom, goodness, it’s a good thing I check my spam folder from time-to-time – your comments about this book were hiding in there!
      What we lack in ruined castles, I think we can make up for with spooky sounds and eerie atmosphere in the bush – we have unexplored caves to use instead of perilous tunnels and of course getting lost in the vastness of the outback is always an option!

  6. […] P.S. Lisa over at the ANZ Lit lovers blog has also written a terrific review of Bereft, you can find it here. […]

  7. […] Australian independent booksellers in March and many more enthusiastic reviews including those at ANZ LitLovers, Bite the Book and […]

  8. Lisa, I thought you might like to know that Bereft has just been longlisted for a Gold dagger in the CWA Daggers here in the UK. My friend Rhian has a rundown on her blog: http://itsacrimeuk.wordpress.com/2012/07/06/cwa-dagger-longlists-2012-gold-steel-john-creasey-new-blood/ The winner will be announced in September/October

    • That *is* good news, thanks for letting me know. I met Chris Womersley at the MF awards night in 2011 and he is such a nice man, it’s lovely to hear of further accolades.


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