All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Foal’s Bread – Gillian Mears

on August 18, 2012

Foal’s Bread
Gillian Mears
Allen & Unwin
2011, 352p
Copy courtesy of Marg

It is 1926 in country Australia and 14yo Noah Childs and her father Cecil are in the middle of droving pigs, collecting them from the farms along their route to take them to Sydney to become dinner on many plates. Noah is left alone at the camp while her father and a couple of the men helping wander into town in search of a drink. What happens to her while she is alone will always haunt her in the back of her mind, always be a memory and the reason for which she will assume that things happen to her in the future.

It is merely days after that incident when Noah meets Rowley Nancarrow, often called Roley. Noah and her father are hitting a country show aiming to take part in the high jump on horseback and Noah is at first unaware that the young man that seeks her out is one of Australia’s finest jumpers. Roley gives Noah his good luck charm, something known as ‘foal’s bread’ and she tucks it into her bra, having no pockets. Noah’s father is often too sloshed to compete properly by the time the jumps come around so it is up to Noah and the ride that has been secured for her. They don’t win but Noah has utterly captured Roley’s attention and it seems from then on that they are a pair – competing together, wowing the crowds. Roley asks her to marry him and Noah moves out to One Tree, Roley’s family farm where she will discover, that the welcoming is not always warm.

Roley and Noah have a dream and that is to build their own team of jumping horses, travelling around to the shows and jumping records together. The dream is put on hold for Noah when she becomes pregnant with their first child, but Roley travels away to compete, making it back from Cairns just in time for the birth of their daughter Elaine, nicknamed Lainey. She will be on a pony from before she can walk, adding to Noah and Roley’s dream of running their own team one day. Roley’s father is supportive, looking for horses they might be able to buy, but Roley’s mother is resentful. She’s never quite accepted his marriage to Noah, never quite believed that Noah was good enough for her son, having a touch of Aboriginal in her and relatives that were quick to go for the drink.

Encompassing two generations of Nancarrows, Foal’s Bread is the story of pre-WW2 farming Australia, a time that is marked with the loss of WW1 but looking forward to the future and what it holds.

I’ve been meaning to read Foal’s Bread for some time. Marg from over at Adventures of an Intrepid Reader passed on a copy to me and I had always planned to read it for part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012. However the announcement of Gillian Mears’ In Conversation event at the Melbourne Writers Festival that I’ve booked in to attend had me bumping it right up the list so that I could finish it before I went to hear her talk. I’d heard a lot of amazing comments about this book on twitter, including a rather steady campaign that it should’ve been awarded the Miles Franklin award that went to All That I Am. I was underwhelmed by the winner’s depiction of Australian life, so I was very keen to read this one and see how it compared.

I was hooked from the very first pages – the descriptions of Noah and her father, the land and the homesteads but it was what happens to Noah alone near the creek with just the pigs nearby where this book became one I’ll always remember. It’s hard to talk about without spoiling it for those who haven’t read it, but it’s such a heartwrenching scene made all the more so by Noah’s matter of factness about it and her quiet resolution of the situation. I don’t know how a 14yo girl managed to act that way, her upbringing with her father and her now deceased Uncle Nipper seems to have made her more male than female in many ways. However it’s soon obvious that although Noah dealt with this situation, it’s never truly far from her mind, the memory coming up many times throughout the story. Sometimes she seems to think that what she did is the reason things happen later in her life, why she is punished – except the punishment doesn’t happen to her, it happens to the people she loves.

In a way, Foal’s Bread is a very bleak book – the characters often have terrible things happen to them but in that somehow, they keep going, better than they were before. Noah is stronger for what happened to her, better equipped to deal with things later on in her life. Although her and Roley’s marriage has many downs, they do stay true to each other in the best way that they know how and even while they are not happy, trying to find a way back to the heady days in the beginning, they still love each other. Noah at times also has trouble relating to her daughter Lainey and when Lainey successfully wins a high jump, is actually downright cruel to her and even as I really felt for Lainey when this happened, I also applauded Mears for taking the time to flesh out what a really fractious mother/daughter relationship was like. Noah desperately wanted something her whole life and she never got it. When her daughter did, it was almost too much for her to bear and I feel that was very real, very human.

I loved this book – every word of it. It would’ve been a very deserving winner of the Miles Franklin, had it got the nod. The Australian lifestyle, the farming, the travelling to those country show days, the training of horses, trying to get the best price for the milk from the dairy cows, the small towns, the pubs therein…. All showcased fabulously. Foal’s Bread was Gillian Mears’ first novel for something like 16 years – it’s the first I’ve read by her and I know I’ll be trying to collect the rest. I can’t wait to hear her talk now at the MWF and look forward to doing a post on what she has to say.


Book #158 of 2012

Foal’s Bread is the 51st novel read and reviewed for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012


10 responses to “Foal’s Bread – Gillian Mears

  1. Marg says:

    I am so glad that you enjoyed this more than I did. I just think that reading it in a readalong gave me too much time to think about what was happening and particularly in relation to my particular hot button issues.

  2. Tony says:

    I like the sound of it in some ways, but in others not so much (life on the land etc). Still, I’m sure it’s better than a certain book-which-shall-not-be-named…

  3. brendat59 says:

    Excellent review:)

  4. I love historical fiction set in Australia… i’ll be adding this to my wishlist shelf- Thanks Bree!

  5. Thanks for your excellent review! Although it was bleak in parts, I didn’t find Foal’s Bread depressing. It was the best book I’ve read all year and the only novel I’ve awarded 5 stars. I was disappointed when it didn’t win the Miles Franklin.

  6. A most informative review!

  7. Julie Proudfoot says:

    It’s on my ‘to do’ list now!

  8. […] and fascinated by a time and place long gone.’ At All the Books I can Read, 1girl2manybooks loved Foal’s Bread despite its bleakness; it was her first reading of Gillian Mears but it won’t be her […]

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