Submitted by David Whish-Wilson on Mon, 14/02/2011 – 15:40

When he is sixteen years old Quinn Walker’s beloved sister goes missing during a memorably fierce storm. Soon after, Quinn is discovered by his father and uncle, in a disused shed by the town weir, bloody knife in his hand, his sister raped and dead before them. Quinn flees his father’s wrath, and the bewilderment and anger of the townsfolk of Flint, where is referred to thereafter as ‘the murderer’ (guilty of a crime made comprehensible only by allusions to the ‘unhealthy’ nature of the relationship between brother and sister.) Nevertheless, the wickedness of the crime invests the rural NSW town with ‘a guilty air of ill-gotten excitement.’

The novel proper begins with the newly demobbed Quinn turfing his military cross overboard on a troop transport back to Australia, the award gained for valour during his service on the First War western front. As far as Quinn is concerned, the medal is undeserved, the result not of courage under fire but rather of caring not ‘a jot for his personal safety: that was not the same thing as bravery.’ Quinn has been gassed, his lungs have been ruined and his hearing is damaged. His badly scarred face resembles ‘a slur of porridge.’ On the train that takes him out of Sydney towards his hometown it is suggested to Quinn that he hide his face behind the surgical masks that many people are wearing to ward off the Spanish flu, because his disfigurement is terrifying to children. He refuses, but strikes out on his own, making his way home thereafter on foot, the landscape becoming familiar to him as he approaches, refracted always through the horror of his recent experience, his unbidden memory a ‘queasy brew of longing and regret.’

Quinn hides out in the hills above his parent’s farm, observing his father’s comings and goings before he decides it is safe to visit his mother. He desires to convince her of his innocence, but it is some time before he can convince her, in her influenza delirium, that he is real. His visits to his dying mother and his retreats to the hillside to escape the still murderous vengeance of his father describe both the structure the novel from then on, and the push and pull of his desire to be absolved by the only one who loves him, and his competing need for solitude, for anonymity, merely one of millions of men on the postwar roads, searching for a place to belong. Both Quinn’s needs are coloured by concealment and ambivalence. He cannot tell his mother the whole truth, for fear that in her weakened state it will destroy her, and he cannot find solace in the ‘dun-coloured and exhausted’ landscape. Despite the sensitivity of his reading of country, his perceptions  too are scarred.  ‘War, he discovered, blighted every sense a man possessed: if he closed his eyes to the sight of ruined trees and bloodied men, he still heard guns and screaming; if he covered his ears he still felt the jolting earth; the smell of gas lined his nostrils; everything he touched was wet or bloody. Even when asleep, he dreamed of flickering explosions of light, of torn clothing, of grunting laughter.’ So profound is Quinn’s damage that he even comes to envy the blind and deaf soldiers he has encountered for their utter isolation. The mechanised nature of modern warfare is absolute. In the meeting of metal and flesh, it is flesh that is defaced, humanness that is banished. This truth metaphorically inflects his vision of men disfigured by injuries so horrific that their faces are replaced by ‘masks of tin on which were moulded and painted those features which had been blasted off’, and his vision of country, where a ‘glimpse of dirt road lay like a fuse through the elms.’ At one point Quinn lays his ear to the earth, and listens: ‘beneath him the dense meat of the turning earth…he imagined fires down there, the screech of metal, those goblins and devils with their peculiar industry.’

The vision is gothic, a human and physical landscape characterised by the recent desertion of God, of a grasping at superstitious intangibles, understandings just out of reach. Quinn describes his visit to a spiritualist in London, where he is given a message that is both Delphic and ambiguous, but also meaningful enough to send him home directly – he believes he has been charged with protecting the spirit of his murdered sister. He camps in the bush, and waits, for what? He observes, and listens, but the natural world is not immediately inviting, rather reflecting his own sense of dislocation. ‘Even the native trees looked to have grown not from this country but, rather, to have been thrust – unwilling, straining skyward – into the soil from which they now attempted to writhe free…Australia was an in-between place, without order, where trees were forced to grow anywhere they could. Their poor roots clawed the ground. The animals were lumpen, wobbling and slithering. Even the birds didn’t sing but, rather, cackled and hooted and laughed like so many lunatic inmates. And overhead, always, that sheer, blade-sharp sky.’

The description recalls the ‘weird melancholy’ of Marcus Clarke, and the plot subsequently mirror’s Clarke’s description of how ‘human savagery, brutality and violence were the fitting accompaniment to the never-ending savageries of nature in Australia.’ The tone is vaguely gothic, but Womersley’s prose is gently formal, reflecting the language of the period, perhaps, but also similar to the understated but emotionally resonant language of early Coetzee, in Waiting for The Barbarians in particular, peppered with descriptions such as that of hawks circling overhead ‘like dark, watchful stars disentangled from their orbits’, and the domestic image of Quinn’s sister playing knucklebones, ‘a sound through the house like rodents’ (Womersley consistently deploys aural images to great effect), and the microscopic sensitivity that enables Quinn to listen so intently, in his wariness, that ‘[a]t night, when the house and surrounding bush were still, he heard the whiskers growing through his cheeks with the sound of countless nails being prised from wood.’

It is only when Quinn meets Sadie Fox, a runaway from the town, for reasons that become crucial to the outcome of the novel, that Quinn becomes emboldened enough to seek revenge upon his sister’s murderer. Sadie Fox, ‘the angel of death’, becomes to Quinn’s vulnerable mind the sister that he has returned to protect, although it is she who does the protecting. She steals food from the town to sustain them, but she also shows Quinn another way of entering the mystery of country. She takes him to the ‘cave of hands’, where she divines their future in the entrails of a lamb, she makes small propitiations in the form of delicate locks of hair, tinsel and nails, through ornaments ‘beautiful and pathetic, a tiny thing made sacred by a girl.’ A magical tone, a wonderment begins to pervade the sensibility, such that by the end of the novel, despite the openness of the conclusion, we suspect that Quinn too, like Marcus Clarke before him, has become somewhat more acclimatised to his inevitable fate, that ‘beauty of loneliness’ that explains both his disappearance from the story, but also his continued status as legend, as a ghost who stalks the outskirts of the town, the subject of nursery rhymes and warnings to children, a man outside the ken of ordinary folk.

I read Bereft in one sitting, the first time I have done that in a long, long while. It’s a terrific novel, beautifully executed, and has made me very eager to read Womersley’s Ned Kelly award winning first novel, The Low Road (2008).

Bereft – Chris Womersley, Scribe, 2010. “It is 1919. The Great War has ended, but the Spanish flu epidemic is raging across Australia. Schools are closed, state borders are guarded by armed men, and train travel is severely restricted. There are rumours that it is the end of the world. In the NSW town of Flint, Quinn Walker returns to the home he fled ten years ago when he was accused of an unspeakable crime. Aware that his father and uncle would surely hang him, Quinn hides in the hills surrounding Flint. There, he meets the orphan Sadie Fox – a mysterious young girl who seems to know more about the crime than she should” – from the dustjacket.