This review is cross-posted from the Wheeler Centre’s Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards series.
It is a talisman of luck, and love. Foal’s bread – both the object and the novel – is a strange, rare and mesmerising thing.
‘Just every now and then,’ he explained, ‘a foal is born with something that looks like a little slice of bread in its mouth…Fact is, no one knows what it is exactly. In a high-jumper foal, it’s a sure sign he’ll go to the heights; for a galloper, fast.’
Later, we learn that it is believed to hold another power too: ‘love charms they reckon. That people dried out the bread for that.’
One Tree Hill and its fateful river are the location for this tale. This is a sad, tragic story set in a hard and unforgiving place. Noah, ‘the girl with the boy’s name’ comes to One Tree, a farm and homestead in New South Wales. In her first showjumping competition, she meets Rowley Nancarrow, the Australian high-jump champion. The permutations of their eventual marriage mark the course of the novel, but the central story is really the inner workings of Noah herself: her loves, losses and jealousies.
Mears possesses a unique style – the book is written in a strange, cowboy vernacular. It takes a little while to fall into Mears’ prose, but the vast scope of the novel moves at such a swift pace, you find yourself swept along breathlessly with it. In one of the key stories of their history, Rowley Nancarrow famously guides his horse across the jumps so effortlessly that he takes his hands off the reins for a second. ‘Neither accidental nor careless, it was rather that he was possessed of a gift so rare the only thing he could do to acknowledge that his ability came from somewhere bigger than himself was to let go of his reins and stretch out his arms.’ That’s what Mears’ prose is like. You watch in awe what she does so effortlessly. Spinning twinkling beauty out of hard, unforgiving territory.
Mears infuses a kind of magic into the landscape. The land and the animals speak at times, like a Greek chorus commenting on the events of the novel:
‘These are the golden days, here is the golden year, hurry-hurry-hurry, the air of One Tree seemed to be singing each morning to the whirr of the new separator. These are the hallowed ones, do take your chances, gurgled the stomaches of the hungry horses.’
The natural environment also changes depending on the characters’ moods, becoming brighter and more forgiving when things are well: ‘As he put his arms around her he saw that even the moon looked softer up in its place in the sky.’
Midway through the novel, their very own foal’s bread dries itself into the shape of a ‘little fat heart’. Foal’s Bread itself is littered with hearts. They are engraved into the cabinet Rowley makes for his and Noah’s bedroom. Their children, Lainey and George, search for heart shapes in the landscape, ‘This was the game they always played. Spotting heart shapes here, there and everywhere. This one was formed out of half-dried moss and twigs.’ Their showjumping silks are spangled with them, and even a horse’s dappled coat forms a perfectly shaped heart. And this is, ultimately, a story about love – the ambiguous and still-erotic longing Noah has for the uncle to whom she fell pregnant when she was just 14. The mourning she has for her lost child. Her unfulfilled yearning for her husband’s physical love. Her adoration of her horses. And George, a uniting figure of love for all the inhabitants of One Tree, who bestows his child-like love upon his cats.
The strange and rare phenomenon from which the novel takes its name becomes a talisman hanging up high above its events. Mears writes a lucky heart out of a horse’s afterbirth. Though Foal’s Bread is a sad and unsentimental tale about paralysis and loss, Mears has a way of making coarse things shine.