Gillian Mears’ graceful Foal’s Bread is a rather aching portrait of a rural Australian family trying to forge their way through the 20th Century. Feeling the weight of its location, infused with both the beauty and restrictions country life can bring, this book traces the life of Noah Childs and her fight for autonomy and something better. It is a tough and unsentimental book, set in a tough and unsentimental landscape.
The book opens in rural New South Wales, 1926. Noah Childs, the girl with a boy’s name, travels across the state with her father, herding pigs for slaughter. She is pre-naturally talented with horses, with a gift for coaxing even the oldest animal into working with her, and the national horse jumping champion Roley Nancarrow just can’t believe his eyes. Years later after they marry, Noah returns to Nancarrow farm she first saw with her father, with dreams of growing a horse jumping champion family.
“The girl pushed the pony into a canter. That’s when the feeling of the land began to be known to her; its hollow quality. Jumping horses. That thoroughbred-looking thing in the other paddock might be one hopeful, fed only on wild air and wild water by the looks of its ribs.”
But early in their married life problems strike: injury, disability, World War II. The Nancarrow house seems to seethe with rage, fury, upset and unspoken grudges as the family negotiates the new path they are on. It is a kind of damning portrait of family inheritance, circumstance and rural life; every character has some irredeemable qualities. But the feeling Noah gets when she rides, the flush of achievement and wonder when horse jumping, keeps returning and gives her a reason to keep going.
It is a compulsive and not completely satisfying book to read, with a haunting quality that stays long after you finish. The story is upsetting, life is unjust, characters are infuriating: it is hard to accept what the narrative throws at them when they are so problematic. Noah is a woman who is unlikable but psychologically recognisable as she rails against the structures of femininity and its cultural roles. She has inherited her father’s rage and achieved nothing of her dreams and her searing anger isolates everyone around her.
But there is a familiarity here for me as well. The reassurance of a horse’s intelligence and personality; the yearly jacaranda flower; how wildly the landscape and the weather can treat you. It feels like a harsh, familiar home.
“The tree is an old jacaranda, a moment of almost antique-seeming grace next to a wooden house painted cream, built in front of an original hut. Every summer a thorn vine in flower is a burst of red over the long streaks of roof rust.”
Inextricably tied to its time and place, Mears’ book is unapologetic in narrative, making no attempt to sentimentalise or soften the events the 20th Century throws at her characters. Foal’s Bread feels like a very Australian, very important slice of history; almost aggressive, unforgiving, but absolutely gives you a reason to keep going.