It’s been 16 years since Gillian Mears published her last novel, The Grass Sister, which won the regional Commonwealth Prize for best book in 1996. The Mint Lawn won the 1991 Vogel Award and she has also written a number of award-winning short-story collections. Foal’s Bread takes its title from a small object that, on rare occasions, is found in a new foal’s mouth at birth. It looks like bread, hence the name, but nobody really knows what it is. It is thought to be lucky, however. If the horse is a jumper, it will jump high; if it’s a sprinter, it will run fast.
Set in rural NSW prior to WWII, the book opens with 14-year-old Noah and her father droving pigs to a farm. That evening while the men are off drinking, Noah deliverers the baby she barely knew she was carrying, fathered by her now dead uncle. When the infant cries she wishes it had been born dead, saving her the trouble of killing it. But she finds she cannot kill it, and instead sends her baby floating down the river in a box. That image will haunt her.
When Noah meets champion horse-jumper Roley at a country show he is impressed by her riding and jumping skills. He lends her the foal’s bread he carries with him and she jumps even higher. Over several years their relationship develops, until Roley marries Noah and brings her back to the family farm. Her skills at the farm are useful, but not enough to overcome the jealousy that Roley’s mother Minna feels at being displaced in her son’s affections. Two children are born, but after a time Roley’s physical condition begins to decline. As his body deteriorates, so does his relationship with Noah. And when Noah’s daughter Lainey starts jumping higher than she ever did, Noah is jealous—hating herself for it, but unable to help it. Her own life, so ordinary, is a disappointment.
The relationships between the characters in Foal’s Bread are rich and varied, and Mears rarely takes the obvious route as she explores emotions of love, jealousy, frustration and disappointment. Despite their many flaws and foibles, I found it impossible not to feel for each of the characters as they grappled with their problems; even mother-in-law Minna, with her constant sniping and jealousy, remained sympathetic, and this is a testament to Mears’ skill.
Foal’s Bread is a book to be read slowly and savoured. The country setting and language of the time are beautifully captured and the characters are intricately observed. Mears obviously loves horses, and the horsejumping shows, with their smells and sounds, come alive on the page. Mears is up there with Tim Winton and Kate Grenville. Let’s hope her next book isn’t as far off.
Heather Dyer is the owner of Fairfield Books in Melbourne. This review first appeared in the October issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.