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?’
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.’
‘No. I don’t.’
‘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.