January 13, 2012 by markstani
There is a danger of doing Chris Womersley’s post-First World War Australian Outback saga Bereft (pub. Quercus) a disservice by describing it as ‘unputdownable’.
So-called ‘unputdownable’ books often turn out to be a sort of literary soufflé: scrumptious for the most part, but in the habit of leaving their readers feeling strangely unsated at the finish.
Unputdownability is generally the territory of common crime whodunnits or celebrity memoirs: in other words, it’s a recommendation which guarantees accessibility and ready-made momentum – tune in and zone out, just so long as it lasts.
You could call ‘Bereft’ a crime drama, after a fashion, but it’s definitely no whodunnit: you get a good inkling of the perpetrator fairly soon, and it’s as good as confirmed before you hit half-way. Nor is it any form of literary comfort food. Womersley’s book describes the horrors of the trenches, the lingering, debilitating hell of gas attacks, and what we would in modern parlance call post-traumatic stress disorder more viscerally than most.
But one thing Womersley’s book does have is momentum, as it follows the returning soldier Quinn Walker’s arrival from the War in 1919 to his home town of Flint, a sun-bleached scrub of a place ravaged not only by the loss of so many of its fighting men, but also in the grip of a deadly influenza epidemic.
For Quinn, it’s the least of his worries. It’s the first time he has set foot back in the place in ten years, since he was accused of an unspeakable crime against his sister. He knows the townsfolk will seek to hang him if they find him back. Hiding out in the woods above town, Quinn falls in with a runaway orphan, Sadie Fox, whose ghostly ways and impish companionship help bring his past to life, and make his options a little clearer in his gas-fogged head.
If Womersley is strong on evoking the barren, hopeless landscape of this part of New South Wales, he is even better at painting the bleak and incestuous lives of its inhabitants:
When it was dark, they ate cold beans and dry bread, and Sadie told Quinn of other things: Mrs Taylor, who wept every night over the deaths of her three sons in the war; the McClaren boy, who died from the plague and how a slug of blood leaked from his ear when they carried him from the house; how the Reverend’s daughter Casey Smail got pregnant to a travelling salesman and they took her to the Chinaman to drink a potion that dissolved her baby; the Harman boy, who came back from the war possessed by the Devil; that his uncle Robert Dalton sometimes visited the widowed Mrs Higgins late at night. Who was dead, who married – the events that tangle and weave, over time, to make a town’s history.
If Quinn’s mind is not tortured enough by the memory of his sister, it is also subjected to violent, wartime flashbacks which tend to merge into a nightmarish soup with the travails of his present. It’s a surprisingly Gothic novel, in which certain mysteries are never quite solved. The vagueness of a visit to a Paris séance weighs heavy throughout, as do the flitting appearances of Sadie, a character so otherworldly as to sometimes seem hardly really there at all.
In the wrong hands, the slight, otherworldly Sadie could have become a cumbersome cliché: a clumsy metaphor for loss and longing; an irritating diversion from the momentum of an urgent central plot of a man returning home in search of redemption.
In fact, as Womersley’s superbly paced novel builds to its inevitable but never less than enthralling climax, it’s the spectre of Sadie who will do her best to cajole you into putting your chores on hold and pulling ‘Bereft’ back off the bookshelf. Unputdownable? Almost. But much more steak dinner than soufflé.