Carmel Bird's review of Bereft a novel by Chris Womersly published by Scribe
Review published in Australian Book Review, September 2010
The 1914-18 war is lodged in the minds of Australians with the power of myth. Chris Womersley, in startling, powerful, plain yet tender and lyrical prose, has constructed a heart-breaking narrative that opens up the wounds of war, laying bare like sinews the events that track back before the conflict and reach forward into the collective memory. I was reminded of A.S. Byatt’s recent novel The Children’s Book which also foregrounds in poetic language the so-called Great War, and similarly etches forever the stark horror of broken bodies and minds on the consciousness of its readers.
In Bereft, Mary Walker, in her quarantined bedroom in the small NSW country town of Flint, in 1919, is dying, a victim of the influenza epidemic (often referred to here as ‘the plague’) that followed the Great War. Her only daughter, Sarah, was raped and murdered at the age of twelve, in 1909. After the child’s death, Sarah’s older brother Quinn ran off and was not seen again. He was presumed to have committed the crime. A telegram from the Army told his mother he fought in the war and was killed. In her fevered isolation Mary is ‘comforted by visions of her lost children’. It is she who gave those children their passionate love of stories, saying that a good story is ‘like medicine’, but also she who speculates that maybe stories are a way of ‘hiding from the world’. It is Mary who realises there is no word to define a mother who has lost a child, Mary who grasps the word ‘bereft’ to describe herself, Mary therefore who gives the novel its title.
The ‘story’ you will read in this novel tells how Quinn perhaps survived the war and returned home after all, like a fugitive living ghost when his mother was dying, and how he took revenge for his sister’s murder, and for the ruin of his own existence. His elusive presence in Flint in 1919 takes on, for the people remaining in the little town, the ‘shimmer of truth’. Such a shimmer plays and tantalises across the novel, drawing the reader into the broken heart of the world as it emerges from the meaningless carnage and infection of war into the chimeric rubble of peace. The war, with its mythic qualities, takes on the face of a hideous dreamscape, and the fact that hallucination is never far from the novel’s landscape adds to the breathless nightmare nature of the story. Sometimes I felt a kind of faint echo of Under Milk Wood flickering through the fabric of the scenes, although in Bereft there is nothing whimsical. This is an account of terrible, terrible cruelty, of profound and wrenching sorrow. War is the big drama of human horror, but in what passes for peacetime are enacted also the basest moments of exquisite cruelty. That Womersley can marry these two extremes, and construct a narrative in which the reader is left with a burning sense of regret, tenderness and love, is a mark of his skill and of his fictional reach.
On his secret return home in 1919 Quinn inhabits the wild places in the hills behind Flint, leading a fugitive existence, with stealthy visits to his dying mother. One time he takes her a bunch of lavender, a herb known for its power to induce drowsiness, and later she is unsure whether she spoke to her son, or imagined she did. The reader is frequently placed in a similar position of doubt, but this effect is used in the narrative to increase a desire to believe, to in fact strengthen the credibility of the supernatural element of the text. Quinn has visited a London medium, and come away with a written message from the spirit of his beloved sister Sarah: ‘Don’t forget me. Come back and save me. Please.’ This note is his treasure and his talisman. Truth is a sombre and fragile matter.
Into Quinn’s life in the wild comes a strange elphin companion, a twelve year-old orphan sprite-girl named Sadie Fox who is looking for her brother, ‘a pilot in the war’. Quinn and Sadie have, in Quinn’s own words, ‘conjured each other’. They are each of the earth, having the ability to listen to the deep sounds of the natural world. Quinn constantly compares the busy lives of insects with the lives of human beings, and he can detect the ‘grinding of the earth’ as it revolves in space. It is a world forsaken by God, where in a moment of Blakean symbolism Sadie kills a sacrificial lamb.
Quinn’s quest for revenge moves relentlessly on with the tension of a thriller, pacing Sadie’s dream-desire to go with him to Kensington Gardens where there is a ‘fairy queen and she grants wishes’. Quinn himself concedes that this would be a fresh green place filled with mist. And so a link to Byatt’s The Children’s Book is firmly clarified. In both novels the ghastly stench and blood and mud and bone of war are played against the sad narrative of Peter Pan and the fairies, both articulating the inability of human beings to imagine anything more useful than fairyland. Quinn and Sadie and a grey horse walk away on an ‘ordinary Sunday morning’, closing the story to the accompaniment of hymns floating from the church. The reader can only weep for them, and for the suffering of the foolish world.