Literary Corner Cafe

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Book Review - Bereft by Chris Womersley


Every novel, if it’s a novel at all, has its “inciting incident,” a phrase I think was coined by screenwriting guru Syd Field. The inciting incident of Bereft, the luminous new novel from Australian writer, Chris Womersley, takes place in 1909 on a stormy day near the former gold rush town of Flint in New South Wales. That’s the day the book’s protagonist, then sixteen-year-old Quinn Walker, was found by his father and his uncle standing over the body of his twelve-year-old sister, Sarah, a bloody knife clutched in his hand. Quinn does what many sixteen-year-olds would do in that situation – he runs. He’s not heard from again until his mother receives a telegram informing her that Quinn is missing and is presumed dead in the trenches France, one of the multitude of victims of the Great War.

One would think that Quinn, now twenty-six in 1919 when the main action of the book takes place, and still alive, would make it a point to stay as far away from Flint as humanly possible, but this isn’t the case. Spurred on by a mysterious note given to him during a séance in Marylebone in London, Quinn returns to Flint, a town that’s lost its reason to live, determined to avenge the murdered Sarah. He’s not the same Quinn who left ten years previously, however. Part of his face has been mangled by shrapnel. His hearing has been dulled by repeated shell blasts. A gas attack left his throat “a violin with a frayed string that fluttered useless and annoying, tangling in those strings still tuned tight and in working order.” And Quinn, of course, has been affected emotionally as well as physically. He’s shell shocked and haunted by ghastly memories and hallucinations: the crack of gassed birds underfoot; stricken men calling for their comrades; the sight of a soldier sodomizing a corpse; and the “claustrophobic” presence of the dead, “as if their silence were an impossible demand.”

Though he’s far from France, the horrors awaiting Quinn in Flint are, in some respects, much like the horrors of war. It’s 1919 and the Spanish flu pandemic is in full force. The dead and the dying are everywhere, some of them beckoning to Quinn like the ghostly apparitions that haunt his sleep. One of the dying is Quinn’s own mother. She lies in bed, feverish and alone, awaiting the end. It’s Quinn’s mother who explains the meaning of the book’s title:

Widows, widower. Orphan – and you know I was already one of those. 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.

And Quinn tells her that there is no word for a brother who’s lost his sister, either, for he, too, has been left bereft.

Even with the alterations in his physical appearance, Quinn doesn’t dare to stay in Flint. Instead, he hides in the hills above town, and it’s in those hills that he meets Sadie Fox, a twelve-year-old orphan whose parents fell victim to the Spanish flu. Despite Quinn’s murderous reputation, Sadie seems unafraid of him and befriends him as she awaits her own brother’s return from war. Pursuing her is Quinn’s uncle, Robert Dalton, the sheriff of Flint, a man Sadie swears is himself a murderer several times over, and, along with Quinn’s father, the man who vowed to hang Quinn for Sarah’s murder.

From their very first meeting, it’s clear that Sadie is the savvier of the two, the one more attuned to living in the wild, and it’s also clear that she knows far more about Quinn and Sarah than any twelve-year-old should, including the details of Sarah’s murder and even the name of her murderer.

It’s not a spoiler to let you know that Quinn didn’t murder his sister. Womersley makes that clear very early in the book. Suspense will flow, not from wondering whether Quinn did or did not kill Sarah, but from wondering if he’ll be able to hold himself together long enough to avenge her death and prove his innocence, and whether he has the physical and emotional strength to prevail against those who have dark secrets to keep, those whose lives are now fated to collide with his.

Though initially cautious of each other, Quinn and Sadie form an unshakable bond. A strange combination of ageless spirit and childish sprite, it’s Sadie who protects Quinn from danger and even brings him the oranges he’s craved for years. It’s Sadie who pushes him to fulfill his vow of avenging his sister’s death. This seems natural. Quinn is, after all, the big brother who lost his little sister, the big brother who returned from war; Sadie’s the little sister still waiting on her big brother to return.

I spent a good deal of time while reading this book wondering if Sadie was real or a figment of Quinn’s broken mental state. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you whether she was or was not real. That would be too much of a spoiler, but I will say that there’s much about this novel, which is written in the gothic tradition, that borrows from magical realism as well. It’s filled with signs, portents, and superstition, and though young Sadie feels she must hide from Sheriff Dalton, she can, at times, simply dissolve into her surroundings “like smoke or water.”

This is a book filled to overflowing with remembrances of a better past, a desire for what’s been lost, for what’s been ripped away. In Bereft, the past, or what the past had been, be that good or bad, is always threatening to overwhelm the present. Even the town of Flint is but a shadow of what it once was. It has been left bereft:

Fifty years earlier these hills were full of gold and the town of Flint had swarmed with hungry men . . . but the boom was fleeting and had left in its wake a landscape riven and tortured, littered with the ruins of rock stampers and wooden scaffolds that had been erected over shafts.

The characters, especially the pivotal characters of Quinn and Sadie, are extremely well drawn and believable. Even Sadie’s magical like attributes were believable to me. I felt what these characters felt, at least as far as it was possible for me to do so, and I sympathized with both of them. I wanted them to have what they needed and wanted. Where Bereft really shines, however, is in the high quality of its writing and its evocation of place. The beauty and the harshness of the Australian landscape add so much to this book and the telling of this story that I can’t imagine it taking place anywhere else. The very first sentence sets the novel’s tone:

“On the day twelve-year-old Sarah Walker was murdered in 1909, a storm bullied its way across the western plains of New South Wales.” This left the landscape of Flint “riven and tortured,” and the town, which had not seen such drama for years felt “a guilty air of ill-gotten excitement.” The images are lush; the writing is spare, but poetic, and Womersley always chooses just the right word. When a writer describes men in the trenches of France as “so muddied and grey about the gills they might have been fashioned from the earth itself,” I get excited about that author’s work, and Womersley did not let me down.

And the book isn’t overwritten. Quite the contrary; it’s filled with graceful restraint. Despite its poetic qualities, the prose in Bereft is spare and almost formal, something I found very fitting as it reflects the formality of the time period. Even if you’ve not yet experienced the all-consuming loss described by the word, “bereft,” you’ll understand what others who have experienced it are feeling. Womersley brings that much depth and nuance to his writing.

Like the great Toni Morrison, Womersley leaves many holes and spaces in his narrative for the reader to fill in. He trusts his readers to “get it.” His details are often scant, as when he describes the town of Flint. I liked this sketchiness, though. For me, it only added to the ghostliness of the story.

The details may, at times, be scant, but the images this book paints are beautiful, horrifying, and terrible, but always vivid. I remember in particular the images evoked when Quinn and Sadie take refuge in the “Cave of Hands,” a cave that seems to have been conjured by magic and one that plunges the book’s protagonists into “a galaxy of painted hands.”

Some readers I know found Bereft too unremittingly bleak for their taste, but I liked the darkness of the book. And, have no doubt, Bereft does take the reader into some very dark, and very uncomfortable, places. Murder, post traumatic stress, guilt, these are all difficult to read about when they’re presented as authentically as Womersley presents them. For me, however, the book was authentic enough to warrant spending time in the dark.

If I have any complaint at all, it would have to do with the book’s ending. I like ambiguous endings as opposed to endings in which everything is wrapped up neatly and tied with a bow, but I don’t like to have to guess too much. After investing so much of myself with the characters, I want to be able to make sense out of what I read, and I’m not sure I can. At least not completely. Perhaps the fault is mine and not the book’s. And I did say I liked the fact that Womersley left all those holes and spaces for the reader to fill in. So, who am I to complain? At any rate, I thought this book was so superior I couldn’t even deduct one-half star for an ending I felt could have been a little stronger.

Some readers have compared this book to the work of Cormac McCarthy. I’m not one of those readers. Though I do like the early novels of McCarthy, e.g., Child of God, The Orchard Keeper, and Suttree, I found this book, on the whole, to be very different. There is a bloody and spine chilling climax here that is reminiscent of McCarthy, but overall, I’m reminded more of Sonya Hartnett than of Cormac McCarthy.

This extraordinary novel works on so many levels. It’s a story of revenge. It’s a story of redemption. It’s a story of devastation. It’s a story of the trauma experienced by the returning soldier. It’s the story of a man who is broken in both body and spirit, yet who remains determined to make sense out of one of life’s most tragic acts. Bereft is a beautiful and a powerful book and one no reader will soon forget. Read it.

5/5

Recommended: The book is bleak, but it is so beautifully written and contains so much depth that the bleakness becomes almost beautiful. This is one of the best books I’ve read in the last decade. I look forward to more from Chris Womersley, and I look forward to more books like Bereft.

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