Do you know, Quinn, there isn’t even a word for a parent who has lost a child. Strange, isn’t it? You would think, after all these centuries of war and disease and trouble, but no, there is a hole in the English language. It is unspeakable. Bereft.
So speaks a mother dying of Spanish influenza to her son, who has just returned after a 10-year involuntary absence. Forced to abandon his home when he is accused by none other than his father and his uncle of the rape and murder of his younger sister. It’s easy to understand the desolation of this mother, losing both son and daughter in this foul way and then her third child who moves away to escape the burden of memory.
She’s not alone in her emotional devastation. Quinn, the accused is similarly bereft. Cut loose from his home, forced to flee as he doesn’t have the capability to stand and fight the wrong done to him. He travels Australia, odd-jobbing from one state to the next, enlisting when war breaks out, to land in the trenches of WWI France. His experience renders him psychologically stronger than many others. On the ships back home;
Sometimes blokes clambered onto the railing and launched themselves into the air, arms flailing as they fell to the water, perhaps a glistening head before it went under for the final time, never to be seen again. A dark, wide mouth inhaling a last breath, lured by the enchantress Morgan le Fay into her palace beneath the waves. Quinn imagined these men descending into her dim and peaceful realm with seaweed about their necks, garlanded with bubbles, free of the earth and its mortal woes.
When Quinn arrives back in his own neck of the woods, he meets strange little Sadie Fox. A 12-year old orphan, awaiting the return of her older brother from the war. Vulnerable but knowing. Attuned to the natural world and its superstitions. Creator of charms to protect from a known enemy. Protector of and tormentor of Quinn, who appears amazingly innocent in comparison. The troubled development of the relationship between her and Quinn into a symbiotic one makes up the core of this novel.
For a good 2/3rds of the novel I was never quite sure whether Sadie is real or a figment of Quinn’s imagination as she frequently takes on characteristics of his dead sister Sarah. This blurring of the edges adds a ghostly, gothic element to the narrative but more importantly it reflects Quinn’s less-than-clear thought processes, his confusion. Even 10 years on, he still doesn’t possess the wherewithall to resolve the situation on his own initiative. Without Sadie as a driving force, he wouldn’t stand a chance.
The identity of the his sister’s murderer is not the issue - this is revealed very early on. The question is whether justice will be served at long, long last. While the novel held me rivetted, I found the ultimate resolution anti-climatic. One death shrouded in the dubiety prevalent elsewhere. Was it suicide or murder? If the former, it’s a tad too convenient. The final showdown didn’t provide the public vindication I was seeking. On the other hand, the myths that result from the author’s ending are more attuned to the atmospheric intent of the whole.
There is an exceptionally strong sense of time and place, with the Australian countryside a presence in its own right. Other reviews have suggested echoes of and a homage to Cormac McCarthy. While I didn’t find Bereft as visceral as The Road, there’s no denying that Womersley’s post-WWI Australia certainly shares elements of McCarthy’s apocalyptic nightmare.
Bereft is Chris Womersley’s second novel and won the 2011 ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year and the 2011 Indie Award for Best Fiction Novel. It is published in the UK by Quercus today. My thanks to the publishers for the unsolicited review copy and to Kim of Reading Matters for Australian Literature Month. Without either, I doubt I would have made this very enjoyable discovery.
P.S If you fancy reading this for yourself, Kim is also hosting a giveaway.