Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears
‘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.