Book review: Bereft

I read Bereft, Chris Womersley’s second novel, on the strength of it being both short-listed for the 2011 Miles Franklin Award and nominated for the 2011 Ned Kelly Awards. Womersley’s first novel, The Low Road, won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Book in 2008. In fact, everything Womersley writes seems to turn into prize money. Having read Bereft, I can see why.

Bereft is the story of Quinn Walker, a veteran of the Great War, who returns to ‘the fly-speck town of Flint’ on the western plains of New South Wales in search of justice. Ten years earlier, aged sixteen, Quinn had fled the town, accused of murdering his beloved younger sister Sarah. Still wanted for the crime, with both his uncle — now the police constable in Flint — and his own father hell-bent on seeing him hang, Quinn hides out in the surrounding hills while he plots a course of action.

He is adopted by worldly orphan Sadie Fox, ‘a rangy blonde-haired girl, perhaps ten or eleven years old’, herself hiding out in the hills. Sadie is a wonderfully drawn character, at times so wild and fairy-like, she could be a figment of Quinn’s imagination, except that she is also depicted with such visceral intensity. Quinn and Sadie join forces against what turns out to be a common enemy, gothic vengeance foreshadowed by the title of Part 4 of the book, ‘The Angel of Death’.

Womersley is an wonderful writer. His is prose to savour. I found myself pausing to admire his choice of verbs and collective nouns, his word order, challenging myself to try this at home. Quinn has a coughing fit brought on by being gassed in the war: ‘Sweat jewelled on his forehead.’ His mother is quarantined, dying of pneumonic influenza, her breathing ‘thick, bubbly, as if she were half-burried in mud.’ Sadie’s ragged dress ‘might once have been blue but had faded to the colour of a week-old bruise.’

Womersley’s other great skill is his deft ‘less is more’ handling of emotionally laden situations. Witness this exchange, capturing the discomfort in Quinn’s relationship with Sadie:

She scattered something to the floor and, smiling, turned to face him. ‘You want to play?’

‘Play what?’

She laughed, revealing a glint of teeth, like a shiv tucked behind her lips. ‘You know.’

Quinn felt queasy. His palms were clammy.

Sadie scooped objects from the floor and held out her hand. In her hand were five or six lumpy bones, sheep’s vertebrae. ‘Knuckles, of course!’

He shook his head. ‘I don’t think I know that game.’

‘You do.’

‘No. I don’t.’

‘You do.’

‘How would you know?” His tone was more aggressive than he intended, and he regretted it at once.

Writers like Chris Womersley are walking through the door Peter Temple opened for genre writing — specifically crime writing — to be judged on its literary merits. Or as crime writer PM Newton puts it, bringing us closer to the day when ‘genre describes the subject of a novel not its quality’.

But I wonder if ‘literary prize-worthy crime fiction’ is emerging almost as a new genre in itself.

In his recent Miles Franklin oration, Peter Temple quipped that he started out trying to write literary novels — that is, ‘novels that don’t have a dead body in the first chapter.’ Notwithstanding that Bereft does have a dead body in the first chapter, to me it is a stretch to call it crime novel in the traditional sense, precisely because its literary qualities slow down the pace normally associated with crime fiction.

Am I being a purist? David Witteveen, tweeting at the recent Emerging Writers Festival in Melbourne, said ‘My big takeaway from the genre panels: you need to know the history, conventions & cliches, then subvert them.’

I get that. But at what point to you say a book has not so much crossed over as passed through a genre category? And does it matter?

Readers thoughts welcome.

Meanwhile, I thoroughly recommend Bereft. Published by Scribe, available here.

This review has been submitted as part of the Aussie Author Challenge.
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About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne-based crime writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar won the 2004 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. She is a winner of the Scarlet Stiletto Award and has thrice been shortlisted for Ned Kelly awards. Her third novel, The Dying Beach, was also shortlisted for the 2014 Davitt Award. Angela teaches writing and is currently studying for her PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University.
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5 Responses to Book review: Bereft

  1. Andrew Nette says:

    Great post. Tight and to the point.
    I’ll admit, I didn’t particularly like Truth. Didn’t even finish it. The writing was great but the plot and pace just didn’t cut it. I know there’s lots of others out there who thought the same.
    I haven’t read Bereft. It certainly sounds well written, but you don’t make it sound like a crime novel.
    Which leads to what you say about at which book has a book not so much crossed over as passed through a genre category?
    It also means we have to try and define what a Capital C ‘crime’ novel is as opposed to a literary novel that may just have a crime in it.

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  2. Hi Angela

    I read your post early this morning and have been thinking about it all day. I must admit to still being confused as to what makes a novel literary as opposed to not. I do wonder if “literary” is just a term we use to describe work that doesn’t fit neatly into any particular genre.

    Of course, being prize-worthy is a handy thing. So maybe the thing to do is to write a genre novel, break a few rules, ignore a few conventions, and voila…you’re prize-worthy!!

    Me – I’ve always been too lazy to learn the rules and conventions and when I break them, it’s mostly because I don’t know any better….or perhaps I’m just literary. 😉

    Bereft, by your account, sounds intriguing regardless of whether it’s crossing over or passing through.

    To be honest, what I love most about your novels is not the crime and its “solving” but the faces of humanity you show the reader in the process. I think the “worthiness” of the novel is probably as much to do with what the reader is willing to see, as what the writer is trying to show.

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  5. Peggy says:

    I thought this novel was poorly researched, the characters were( for me) two dimensional, the voices were not Australian country voices- far too literate and lacked the laconic tone and humour which one can still hear. The influenza that was raging at that time was so lethal that vulnerable people, such as Mrs Quinn – left to fend for herself (highly unlikely if I know anything about country people) – would have been dead within a week whereas the time frame of the novel left her lingering for about a month! As for Thomas’ letter, it showed a degree of illiteracy that would certainly precluded him from being trained as a pilot in WW1. Perhaps the author wanted to write in the early 20th C literary tradition. he certainly didn’t succeed as far as I was concerned.This for me was a slight Australian gothic fantasy and what is annoying is that it could have been far better. I haven’t read this author’s 1st novel and I will certainly not bother now.

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