Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 15, 2011

Foal’s Bread (2011), by Gillian Mears

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
ISBN: 9781742376295
Source: Review uncorrected proof copy (which is why I can’t copy any Sensational Snippets) courtesy of Allen & Unwin

Fishpond: Foal’s Bread
from Allen and Unwin online


  1. Thanks so much for your post. I’m reading this novel at the moment as part of a read-along hosted by The Book Nerd Club, and am really struggling with it. I think your post will make the reading of the second half of this novel a little less painful. Although I won’t be able to relate to the characters, I think that I can now understand a bit more about where they’re coming from. It is frustrating that Mears leaves so much unsaid. I am also frustrated by the clunky writing style – the way the characters talk is continued on in the general prose. It might improve on a re-read, focusing on issues that the novel raises. Here’s my post:


    • Hello Jacqui, thanks for visiting:) I was interested to see, on your blog, how you were approaching reading the novel in a very writerly way.
      It’s a risky business, writing about characters as damaged as Noah – I don’t feel that I need to relate to characters but I like the pleasure of getting inside their heads in a novel, and this was difficult in Noah’s Bread because Noah and Rowley didn’t understand themselves or each other. I think it takes great skill to achieve this as Mears has done, because it takes such restraint, knowing what to put in and what to leave out, and when it works for the character to be inconsistent (as of course we all are, at times, in real life).
      You seem to be more interested in the horsey bits than me – but I was both fascinated and frustrated by the conflicts that were either one-sided or only half expressed, or not expressed at all. Again this was skilfully done – Minna was every woman’s Mother-in-Law nightmare!


  2. I have been looking forward to learning your take on this book Lisa. As you know, I enjoyed it immensely but didn’t feel capable of doing it justice in a review because of the inability to quote freely from the text of the uncorrected proof copy.
    You have done a wonderful job of providing background and context for ‘Foal’s Bread’ and the more we learn about Mears herself, the more we might be inclined to filter the text through what we know of childhood trauma, repression and post-traumatic stress.
    I guess some people will feel that the book, through the nature of its plot and subplots, is a depressing one. However, powerful imagery – brittle and sweepingly magnificent all at once – does, I think, prove uplifting.
    Mears’ poetic prose moved me to tears on more than one occasion and I couldn’t put the book down.


    • What did you think of the dialogue, Karen? I used to know some older people of the generation before mine who spoke a bit like these characters, so I found it authentic but disconcerting until I got used to it. The frequent use of ‘and that’ tucked onto the end of a sentence and slang like ‘blow me down’ and ‘on the rag’ kept reminding me of who they were and where they were so it was effective for me in creating a sense of their ‘otherness’ from my 21st century urban life. But every now and again it missed a beat and I had to re-read a sentence to make sense of it. I stumbled over one like this on p261 which omitted the subject of the sentence and began with ‘that keen to try’ meaning ‘[she was] very keen to try’. I had to read it and the sentence before it three times to get the meaning and lost the flow of the story for a moment, but overall it was very skilfully done.


      • Yes, I found the dialogue quite challenging and there were a few sentences that I had to read again.
        It was also interesting trying to read between the lines when the character said one thing but meant something else entirely…a kind of bottling up of emotions and a displacement which spilled over into actions.
        More than one of the characters lost track of who or what they were truly angry about and acted on the anger inappropriately.


  3. I am half way through the book at the moment, but one of the things that I am struggling with is the depiction of Noah. It was almost a relief when she started drinking because she was finally exhibiting some of the symptoms that I would have expected to see from someone who had experiences what she did as a young woman. For me those things that you listed seemed more to be related to the wearing down of her relationship with Rowley rather than her own past, and there were a couple of scenes in particular where she compared with Rowley with her uncle that I found completely distasteful.

    I did find a few articles and definitely saw the correlations between what Rowley appears to be suffering from and Mears’ own medical conditions.


    • Hi Marg, yes I was uneasy about those bits too. But from what I’ve learned about this at work, that sort of confusion is not uncommon, and it’s one of the reasons that such predatory behaviour causes long term damage to future relationships. Predators choose kids looking for love and ‘groom’ them so that they believe that theirs is a special and ‘loving’ relationship. Love and loathing then become inextricably intertwined at a crucial period of psychological development, and even with counselling and psychiatric intervention afterwards the damage can be permanent.
      I don’t want to add a spoiler here, but you can see an example of how effective that grooming was when a character acquiesced in a hateful act of cruelty so that she could go off with the predator without interference.


  4. Oh, I’m so behind (my mantra I know). I’ll bookmark this review to read when I’ve got around to reading the book … I did like her The mint lawn but don’t think I read The grass sister (though it rings a vague bell – my older reading journal is part of a larger journal and it’s not easy to pull out what I’ve read. One day I’ll go through them and add the titles to my little db).


    • It’s odd, isn’t it, the way that when we were younger and had read fewer books we could remember everything about them – but as the years roll by and the number of books we’ve read reaches into the thousands, those reading journals become more and more necessary!


      • Yep sure is. I reckon it’s a combination of age (just the degradation of memory – we gain experience and wisdom, I hope, as we lose memory!) and the fact that we’ve read so much more so there’s so much more to remember (as you suggest). But I also wonder whether I’m spending less time (or, at least, concentrated brain power) on considering my reading, because I’m keen to get onto the next book. So many books I want to read…


  5. Fascinating and thoughtful (of course) review Lisa. Must say I loved this book and didn’t really have the problems you, Karen and Marg discuss here. Some in my reading group did (while others like me didn’t). I’ve looked at p. 261 and that didn’t bother me … I think I must have just got into the zone with this book and the voice/s worked.

    I’ll be writing our discussion up (to the best of my ability) on Minerva Reads in a day or so (so look out for it if you are interested) and my own review will be posted tomorrow. Anyhow, thanks for my blog giveaway copy!


    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Sue. Time has gone by since this book was released and I don’t think it raced up the best-seller lists but I suspect that it will be one of those books that slowly gathers a readership through word-of-mouth.
      I have to say that I like the way A&U support writers in this way, not ditching them if they don’t achieve best-seller status straight away!


      • I think you’re right … it’s likely to be a slow burn, but I hope it gets there.

        And yes, I think you’re right about A&U.


  6. […] proof copy received from Lisa of ANZLitLovers in a blog giveaway) Share it!TwitterFacebookLinkedInDiggStumbleUponPrintEmailLike this:LikeBe the […]


  7. I feel like a lightweight for saying it but this sounds a bit too harrowing for me.

    Aside from that, it is a shame to hear her two earlier prize-winning novels are out of print – one of the advantages of e-books.


    • Hi Annabel, I don’t think it’s being lightweight: there are times when we as readers are ready for disturbing books, and other times when we’re not. I’ve been through times in my life when I have looked to reading for light relief from things that were bothering me, and other times when I’ve wanted something to challenge my ideas and take me out of my comfort zone.
      You’re right about the out-of-print problem, thank goodness for OpShops too!


  8. […] Foal’s Bread, Gillian Mears, see my review […]


  9. […] to care for the people she writes about. Yes, it’s a sad story (Lisa, from ANZLitLovers, says “Foal’s Bread is not a book to ‘enjoy’”) — but there’s something about it that makes it a compelling […]


  10. […] Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears, (which has just won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award, see my review […]


  11. […] Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears, see my review […]


  12. […] Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears, see my review […]


  13. […] Lawn when it was released in 1991, and her last novel Foal’s Bread in 2011. (See my review here).  Bernadette Brennan has spent three years writing a biography that sounds utterly […]


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