I have just finished reading Chris Womersley’s 2010 novel Bereft, which was shortlisted for the 2011 Miles Franklin Literary Award and in the same year won the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year and the Indie Award for Fiction. I was late in coming to this one, but I now join the horde of admirers of this brilliant novel that fits into what I’m beginning to think of as a small sub-genre of Australian literary fiction: Australian historical gothic. I would put Courtney Collins’s The Burial (my review here) into this cluster. At a pinch (because it’s a hybrid of historical and contemporary), The Sinkings might find a place there too.
There are so many things to love about Bereft, but perhaps the greatest of these, for me, is the mysterious orphan child, Sadie Fox, a character who takes on the archetypal role of helper, appearing almost by magic to aid the journey of the novel’s protagonist, Quinn Walker. Quinn, returning from the trenches of World War I as a ‘hero’ but in many ways barely more than a boy himself, is drawn back to the hometown from which he fled ten years earlier after the rape and murder of his young sister. But it is a dangerous return, as Quinn is believed to have committed this horrific crime. He hides in the surrounding hills, observing what is left of the home of his past, venturing down to visit his dying mother. Enter the child Sadie, also hiding from those in town who would do her harm—Sadie, whose practical knowledge and almost preternatural wisdom will be the difference between life and death for Quinn.
Quinn blushed and kicked at the edges of the fire. ‘The war. I got injured.’
‘I always live up here. I live in these hills.’
Quinn doubted this boast, but nodded by way of answer. He had wandered these ranges as a boy and knew there was little here apart from boulders and bushes, the dark and disordered press of trees. No people lived up here now the miners had gone.
The girl licked her lips. ‘I have a house. A whole house, hidden away where no one can find it.’ She looked inordinately pleased to have told Quinn this and said nothing more for a few minutes, before standing to stretch and yawn. Now she was upright, Quinn could see she was a bony cat of a girl, all angles and joints. ‘But you never answered my question.’
‘Why are you up here when your house is down there?’
‘How do you know where I used to live?’
Her smile was thin-lipped, as if what she prepared to reveal pained her. ‘I know all sorts of things.’
—Chris Womersley, Bereft (2010)
I suspect Sadie is going to be one of those characters who remain with me for a long time.
Thinking about Sadie and her role in Bereft brought to mind another novel with a ‘wise child’ character who, in a very different way, helps, guides, saves. Who recognises—and is it not recognition that sometimes saves us?
Selena, in Natasha Lester’s T.A.G. Hungerford Award winner, What Is Left Over, After, is a far more realist character than the otherworldly Sadie, but she is no less memorable for that. Loud, larger than life, disarmingly vulnerable, thirteen-year-old Selena foists her company onto the grieving, reclusive Gaelle, a young woman who has fled her home to a seaside town on the other side of Australia. Selena’s curiosity and blunt questions draw Gaelle, at first reluctantly, into a storytelling of mothers and motherhood, fabrication and truth.
‘Take a photo of me now, Gaelle,’ she says, and takes off again, riding around in a circle, arms lifted off the handlebars, grinning.
And even though it’s a pose of the worst kind, I pull the camera out of my backpack, move closer to her and use the difference between what I see in the viewing lens and what the film will see in the taking lens to misalign her head and shoulders. I want the error. The detachment. The vanished body.
After the flash fades, Selena turns her bike towards home. Then she stops. ‘Do you have kids, Gaelle?’
‘Yes. One. She’s just a baby.’
‘I thought you did.’ She cycles away, waving.
‘Why?’ I start to ask, but stop. She moves too quickly on her bike; she cannot hear me now. The words come out anyway, in a whisper. ‘Why did you think that?’ She could tell that I was a mother. Why is she the only one who can?
—Natasha Lester, What Is Left Over, After (2010)
Coincidentally, a novel I am currently editing, for a Western Australian publisher and author, has among its cast of characters a wise child who is breaking my heart. I look forward to being able to tell you about that one in 2014.