Noah’s stoic tale: Foal’s Bread

While the first round of serious Christmas partying kicks off today, I am being decidedly anti-social and bunkering down at home. I’ve been on the run all week and have been longing for an at-home day.

So, to make the most of the stay-in, I thought I’d have a little sit down and finish off Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread (Allen and Unwin).

This novel has been a tough, deeply nostalgic and extremely rewarding read.

“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 fate and 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 heartbreakingly tender and unspeakably hard.”

Mears’ novel is at once literary and also hardy, full of beauty, sweat and blood. It is hauntingly poetic in its narrative, gentle, sometimes stilted but always moving.

For anyone who loves history, horses or life on the land, Foal’s Bread will appeal – within a page or two, it reminded me of how much I’d loved horses when I was a little girl and throughout the story, it brought to mind the work of early writers like Henry Lawson and more recent authors such as Kate Grenville.

Foal’s Bread, for all it’s promises is without a doubt a story of tragedies, loss in tiny increments and heartache enough to stretch across decades. This tragedy brings light to a stoicism unique to this time and place. Roley and Noah Narcarrow demonstrate such resolved to work through their tough lots in life that it is impossible not to hope that all will come good for them, in the end. It is this rural fortitude that helps this book to ring so true as a genuinely Australian work of literature.

I do have to say that it’s not an entirely easy book to read. There were times that I had to back-track to gather the facts needed to move forward in the story. This, I think was due somewhat to the earlier mentioned, poetic pacing of the book… it meant that at times the narrative didn’t quite flow as simply as a lot of modern fiction does. Secondly, I think some challenge comes out of the terminology employed throughout the story. Many of the references are old-school farming terms, very specific to the era and the setting. Although this made the reading a little slower, it is in fact also one for the things that I liked most about the novel, it gave it an undeniable authenticity, and made it about much more than just horses and heartbreak.

As I said the other day, this novel has made me nostalgic in the deepest way imaginable. I have never missed my grandparents more, and it made me hopelessly reminiscent of the days I spent on their farm when I was a little girl. I can’t wait for my Mum to read it, as I’m fairly certain it will remind her poignantly of her childhood on the family farm in North-West Tasmania.

From the references to Rawleigh’s Salve, a multi-purpose concoction that we called ‘magic ointment’ when we were growing up through to the constant, sweet, sweet baking of Ralda – Christmas puddings, ginger snaps and show-winning coconut ice…these all brought back more than a few highly romanticised, dreamlike memories of my grandparents, and in particular my Pop’s hard work and my Nan’s amazing cooking.

I would definitely recommend this novel, I loved it much more than I had expected, and I’m pretty sure it’ll be one of those books that comes to mind often. Be prepared to put a little bit of time aside to get through it, and be patient, it’s worth it.

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