Mrs Cranshaw stepped closer. Rain gathered on her eyelashes. ‘I must ask you again: did she say anything to you, sir?’ Her breath hung in the air between them as thick as candle smoke… ‘We charge for messages from the other side, you know?’
After attending a London séance and surviving the Great War, Australian soldier Quinn Walker is compelled to return to the town of Flint. There, he faces the consequences of fleeing the scene of his sister’s murder: an ailing mother, a broken father, and the local constable who is bent on hanging Quinn if he gets the chance.
Unwilling to leave, unable to stay, Quinn hides in the surrounding hills, where he is befriended by the orphan Sadie Fox. Canny in the ways of this world and the next, Sadie is privy to all of the town’s secrets, including Quinn’s own.
The fugitive’s tale is familiar territory for Chris Womersley. His debut novel, The Low Road, tails the desperate, downward turn of two shady characters, Lee and Wild. Winner of the 2008 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction, The Low Road has been described by Gideon Haigh as ‘so stark and pitiless that it’s hard to keep reading’.
Fortunately, Bereft is a gentler meandering. Unlike Lee and Wild, Quinn Walker is a man more caught up in the past than the urgencies of the present. Much of the novel is retrospective, with Quinn reflecting on his love for his sister Sarah, the horrors of the Great War, and the lead-up to Sarah’s murder. The formulaic slow reveal of the mystery surrounding Sarah’s death and its closure shields us from the novel’s implicit brutalities in the way that Sadie Fox’s magic and fairytales protect her from the certainty of her soldier brother’s death.
Bereft’s imagery is also softer than its predecessor’s. In The Low Road, Womersley evokes characters and settings by building upon our familiarity with the modern city. Lee and Wild’s story starts in a dingy motel at Melbourne’s edge. ‘The suburbs that fringe every city of a certain size look pretty much the same,’ Womersley writes, ‘Car parks humming in their particular fluorescent silences, all angles and dark solids, occupying their land on pitbull haunches. Ribbons of highway unravelling through wet suburbs. The bus shelter with a scuffle of soft-drink cans beneath wire seats and the stink of domestic misfortune.’ In an interview with the author, The Age’s Michael Williams admitted to picturing the novel’s Parkview Motel as being ‘somewhere on the Hume Highway beyond Bell Street’, a location Womersley also had in mind.
On the other hand, Bereft must work with weaker foundations – second-hand accounts of events beyond living memory; hence, Womersley’s sketches leave only an impression of an era, a nation’s mood – nothing concrete. Nevertheless, his early twentieth century New South Wales is a convincing one, thanks to his characters, who exhibit a healthy respect for both the scientific and the arcane: Quinn’s father is enamoured by electricity and aeroplanes and yet swears he has seen a yowie. These individuals make up a society that knows how to build tanks but also has a real fear of dead men walking and Armageddon.
The townsfolk’s superstitions combined with supernatural happenings mark Bereft as a historical novel with gothic sensibilities. Old and new Womersley fans should be pleased with this delicate rendering of love, loss and justice, which metes out equal portions of light and dark from a bygone era.
Thuy Linh Nguyen reads and writes when she can. For more on her literary adventures, visit thuylinhnguyen.wordpress.com.