The Australian writer Gillian Mears’ award-winning Foal’s Bread is one of the most absorbing novels I’ve read in years. It returned me to some of the pleasures of the old-fashioned realist novel: an engrossing plot that kept me reading late into the night; complex characters in a densely realised social and historical setting; an expansive, compassionate vision of life. It’s about the glory days and the decline of show jumping competitions in rural New South Wales, from the 1920s through to the present day; and not being a horsey kind of woman, I wasn’t convinced I would enjoy it.
But it’s about so much more than equine escapades. It deals with both the joys and corrosive estrangements of marriage and family; the rewards and hardships of manual labour; masculine pride and vulnerability; the tenderness and ferocity of motherhood; the beauty and terror of the natural world; the heartbreak of bodily and emotional paralysis; the acceptance, indeed the embracing, of an intellectually handicapped child. I was swept away by its wonderful blend of the vernacular and the poetic, the ordinary and the ecstatic. By its carefully observed moments of intimacy and the painful, unbridgeable gap between loved ones. By the cumulative, brooding power through which it narrates the passing of the years. Part elegy for a lost love and a way of life, part fable, part bush yarn, it is also a work of great emotional generosity. Like the great humanist novels of the nineteenth century, Foal’s Bread asks its readers to understand rather than judge its characters, to extend to them the kindness and loving care they often crave and so rarely find. Knowing about Mears’ crippling and courageous battle with MS also made me acutely aware of the importance in her novel of bodily movement—the exhilaration of show-jumping in particular and, more generally, the intense pleasure of embodied experience in its various and wondrous forms. It’s the kind of novel that makes you want to re-read it as soon as you’ve finished, because you know you’ve missed so much of its subtlety the first time around.
A few days ago I finished the American poet Kevin Power’s debut The Yellow Birds, one of the first novels from the west to deal with the ongoing war in Iraq. Based on Powers’ own experience in Iraq (he served there for a year as a twenty-three year old machine gunner), it is a physically confronting and deeply humane narrative told from the perspective of a young and increasingly traumatized private in the American army. Some of the sections are narrated in pared back, affectless prose, which creates the effect of emotional numbness experienced by men at war. Others sections, particularly those dealing with the natural world, are lyrical in mode, and express the narrator’s desire for beauty, recurrence and comfort as a form of psychological survival.
Powers’ skill lies partly in the restraint of his political critique; he largely leaves the brutal physical details of the war to speak for themselves. Only occasionally does he make explicit the folly of this particular war: ‘We’d drive them out. We always had. We’d kill them. They’d shoot us and blow off our limbs and run into the hills…Then they’d come back, and we’d start over by waving at them as they leaned against lampposts… While we patrolled the streets, we’d throw candy to their children with whom we’d fight in the fall a few more years from now.’ There is much to reflect on, and grieve for, in this novel: the chilling ease with which Iraqi citizens are killed; the reduction of ‘ordinary’ men to killing machines intent only on survival; and, above all, the trauma of one American soldier who, back ‘home’ in the land of the brave and free, is unable to free himself from his nightmare experience, and unable to forgive himself for what he has done and become. His story is surely one of many thousands which the public is not supposed to hear.
I’ve also been re-reading the British poet Simon Armitage’s Seeing Stars, his collection of very short prose poems. Like works of prose, each one tells a story, a snapshot of contemporary urban life: fractured relationships, violence and drug addiction, our hostility to difference, our dismaying indifference to suffering. But they also share with poetry (and indeed the best short stories) the gifts of compression and suggestiveness, the reliance on metaphor and the musical properties of language. One of my favourites, ‘The Christening,’ uses the persona of a sperm whale to mock the pompous arrogance of egotistical men. I wish I’d thought of that! So here’s the whale in question, spouting his self to the world: ‘I have a brain the size of a basketball, and on that basis alone I am entitled to my opinions… I am my own God—why shouldn’t I be? The first people to open me up thought my head was full of sperm, but they were men, and had lived without women for many weeks, and were far from home. Stuff comes blurting out.’ It’s a clever and hilarious riff on an impregnable masculine ego. The title prose poem ‘Seeing Stars’ is an absolute gem. Narrated from the perspective of a mild-mannered pharmacist confronted by drug addicts, one of whom is pregnant, the piece slides quickly and deftly from wit to a sense of menace to a vision of the bleakness of the universe. I enjoyed reading each prose poem aloud to hear the variety of different speaking voices: resigned, bombastic, melancholy, defiant, bewildered, and deeply, blackly, humorous. So go on, read them aloud to a partner, a friend, a liberal-minded parent (but not to a young child). You’ll relish them all.
Susan Midalia is a Perth writer who has published two collections of short stories: A History of the Beanbag (2007; shortlisted for the Western Australian Premiers Book Award), and the recently released An Unknown Sky.
23 Feb 13 at 0:41
Hello once again, I’m of the orange-shirted PWF volunteer brigade & so enjoyed our few chats today (at the green rm then later on the way to the bookshop). Trust you are enjoying the PWF this year & hope my rapid-fire questioning wasn’t too infuriating – I find the whole writing/publishing world infinitely fascinating. Cheers, Kirrilie