I’m a fanatical reader. A fast reader. A reader who gobbles books, burps and looks for more. I am an insult to authors because they spend months if not years writing a book and I whizz through it with unseemly haste.
Last Christmas, however, I received a book I salivated over, took my time with, savoured. I made the glorious pleasure of reading it last for a week. Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears totally captivated me.
Mears is an Australian author; she hasn’t been hugely prolific but what she has published is magical and Foal’s Bread is probably her best to date. Heartbreakingly Mears suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, and writing this novel, her first in sixteen years, has taken her a long and laborious time.
Foal’s Bread, as the name suggest, is about horses. Specifically, it’s set in the years before, during and after World War II in northern NSW, on the high-jumping show circuit. High-jumping was banned in the 1950s but before then it wasn’t uncommon for riders to set their horses at obstacles seven feet high or even more. It was a spectacle, and part of carnival folklore now consigned to history along with the freak tent.
The heroine is equestrienne Noah Childs, who marries fellow high-jumper Roley Nancarrow. Noah is looked down on by Roley’s family but she’s tough mentally and physically. She has to be… for Roley gradually loses the use of his legs, and the dynamics of family and love change as a result, as do the dreams Noah and Roley have chased for years.
Mears has done her research extraordinarily well. She has caught the authentic language of the era, the slang, the drawl, the cadence, the very fabric of people living in the bush and in country towns in the mid twentieth century. You can smell the dust and grass, the sweat on the horses’ necks , the stench of beer at the bar at the local pub, the parched earth soaking in a thunderstorm. Her writing soars like a horse heading for an eight-foot jump – it has the freedom that she physically doesn’t.
This isn’t a sweet love story; it’s a harsh love story, a tough love story, with occasionally cruel images. It’s enthralling. Read it. You’ll have an exhilarating ride.