February, 2012: I first read Gillian Mears's work about twenty years ago - her short stories, Fine Flour (1990), and novel The Mint Lawn (1991). I loved her cool, clear honesty. I haven't reread those books, though they're both still cherished in my shelf. I'm afraid now I'd find them too close to what I call "depresso fiction", where getting to the heart of the matter, the truth of something, always yields depressing nihilism; and where if you think something is sweet and happy, you're soon proven to be deluding yourself. But Mumma is no fan of depresso fiction, and when she was a third of the way through Foal's Bread (2011), she told me it was wonderful, so I took it to Cowra, to get me through the hot days where all I can do is lie on the floor and read.
I said to a friend, "I liked Foal's Bread as a reader, but as a writer, I had a few problems with it." I don't know if I can really split myself in two like that; what I was really expressing to Clare was ambivalence. I loved the mise-en-scène of Foal's Bread - '30s-ish rural Australia, centring around the show-jumping scene. I was surprised and delighted that a 'serious' writer like Mears would take the trouble to create a world so picturesque and appealing. This was certainly not depresso fiction. Moreover, there was a love story! A love story between two beautiful, young, champion show-jumpers. This classic, potentially cliquéed material was being handled by a writer who had not lost any of her clarity and honesty, but seemed less interested in hunting down 'harsh reality'. There was still a lot of dirt in the cracks of the chocolate-box imagery - in the first pages of the book, our tough little heroine, Noah, secretly gives birth to a child fathered by her old uncle. There's mud, poverty and cracked hands, as well as ribbons and flying horses.
Thinking about it now, and about how, like Mumma, I loved it in the beginning, and felt really let down by it at the end, I can see that at some point, the novel loses hope. At the beginning, the reader has reason to believe life will be kind to poor Noah, and despite her rough start, she'll pull through and be happy, by dint of her exceptional pluck and determination. That's when the judge hits a button that produces some dreadful noise - WRONG! Her beautiful young husband becomes impotent, the first symptom of a gradual creeping paralysis that kills him. Noah's hard-won happiness and stability starts to unravel in every possible way, until she ends up committing suicide with one last reckless jump. Nihilism - have faith in nothing! expect nothing! - is still the message. I think of Wordsworth, "Fear that kills, hope that is unwilling to be fed." If you look for nothing, you'll find it.
Like a lot of work these days, though its heart is empty, its finish is perfect. Mears's writing is refined, pared-back and beautiful, her style and tone flawlessly consistent. This is no rough-and-ready novel, with eye-sores and jarring clunks. I actually have little objection to eye-sores and clunks; as I've said before, these are signs the writer is pushing his or her limits, groping for something out-of-reach. The jarring clunks, say, of Ruth Park's The Witch's Thorn, are the sound of the author making her way to her later novel, Swords and Crowns and Rings, where she gets it all right: structure, poetry, and moral purpose. The style and tone of Foal's Bread is perfect, but the structure isn't. It's always problematic, strangely flat, to end with the hero or heroine's suicide (Henry James's Princess Casamassima comes to mind). In Foal's Bread, this problem is dealt with by presenting the reader with an epilogue, in which Noah's grown-up daughter revisits the site of the suicide. It's a case of unsatisfying added to unsatisfying. In some ways, the real ending seemed to be the several pages of effusive acknowledgements - there was satisfaction to be found in the fact that writing this novel was a feat, and - hurrah! - Mears pulled it off. It was also satisfying, in the acknowledgements pages, to read Mears writing in a more natural voice. It makes me wonder: perfect finish, empty heart - does the personality of the author, the author's own story, provide the content?
Sometime later...I felt a bit remorseful for describing Foal's Bread as empty-hearted. I went on-line, thereby allowing the personality and story of Gillian Mears to influence me. I know there's a lot of love in Foal's Bread. But in what organ does hope and faith live? The most interesting fact I found was that Foal's Bread is a near relation to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's The Yearling, which Mears has loved since childhood. The Yearling is an expanded folk tale, in my memory, an apocryphal story a grandfather might have told you one winter when you were snowed in. It's beautiful and perfect. After I read it, about ten years ago, I thought, "We knew, from the first moment it stepped onto the page, that the deer was going to have to die." I pondered this: why did I find the book so gripping, if I knew what was going to happen? It's the great theme of inevitabilities: the interest, and the lesson, is in the limitless and unpredictable ways in which people deal with inevitabilities. I think there's part of me that takes moral offence at the Thelma and Louise, glorious-release-from-the-trials-of-life suicide in Foal's Bread. I don't regard Noah's suicide as an inevitability. I wish the author had found a way through for her.