Foal’s Bread

Gillian Mears

Foal's Bread
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Foal’s Bread

Gillian Mears

The sound of horses' hooves turns hollow on the farms west of Wirri. If a man can still ride, if he hasn’t totally lost the use of his legs, if he hasn’t died to the part of his heart that understands such things, then he should go for a gallop. At the very least he should stand at the road by the river imagining that he’s pushing a horse up the steep hill that leads to the house on the farm once known as One Tree.

Set in hardscrabble farming country and around the country show high-jumping circuit that prevailed in rural New South Wales prior to the Second World War, Foal’s Bread tells the story of two generations of the Nancarrow family and their fortunes as dictated by the vicissitudes of the land. It is a love story of impossible beauty and sadness, a chronicle of dreams ‘turned inside out’, and miracles that never last, framed against a world both tender and unspeakably hard.

Written in luminous prose and with an aching affinity for the landscape the book describes, Foal’s Bread is the work of a born writer at the height of her considerable powers. It is a stunning work of remarkable originality and power, one that confirms Gillian Mears' reputation as one of our most exciting and acclaimed writers.


‘It’s a dyin art, mate, which is why I should teach you soon,’ says Uncle Owen towards the end of Foal’s Bread. By this stage in the book we know that the show-jumping life that has been the focus of Noah Nancarrow’s life is dying but we also know that the whole rural culture and way of life Mears is writing about is undergoing radical change.

The story begins in 1926 when Noah Childs is a 14-year-old girl making a quick urgent decision that haunts her throughout the rest of her life. She and her father are droving a herd of pigs to slaughter and the country of inland New South Wales is harsh and the life constantly demanding. But Noah has a dream of jumping horses and finds beauty and grace in the sport. She also finds her husband, a young Rowley Nancarrow, Australia’s top show jumper, and their love blossoms, making some people expansive and others spiteful and jealous.

Detailing the inner workings and bitter, petty feuds of Noah’s in-laws, Mears lyrically and heartbreakingly draws the demise of love when people are too fearful to express emotion. The landscape, from Grafton down through the inland strip of grazing country and on to the coast, is evocatively depicted and the Nancarrows’ land, One Tree Flat, forms a tilted, precarious canvas for three generations of the family to stumble on, or know, or fail.

Foal’s Bread is Gillian Mears’s first novel in sixteen years and for those of us who loved The Grass Sister, it is well worth the wait. The desire and the emotions that lie just beneath the sun-worn skin of the characters is so present and electric that at times it feels as though lightning will strike the reader, just as it does Rowley Nancarrow.

Pip Newling is a freelance writer and a staff member at Hawthorn Readings.

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