Quinn Walker returns to the small town of Flint, in New South Wales, Australia, in 1919, after fighting in World War I. He had left his hometown ten years earlier under a dark cloud, running away from his home and family after being accused of a terrible crime. Now returned, he bears the physical and mental scars of his years in the war, and hides out in the hills surrounding Flint, looking out over the town, pondering his life as it is now, and why he has returned to this place. He meets a young girl in the hills, Sadie Fox, who seems to have a deep knowledge and understanding of what it is that Quinn fears. Gradually a connection grows between the pair, and Quinn is moved to action.
After reading only a few pages of Bereft, I was impressed with the author's beautiful use of language. It is an atmospheric story, and in many ways a dark read. The years spent fighting in the war have made their permanent mark on Quinn, and as he lurks in the hills over Flint, he is overtaken by memories and visions of the trenches, imagining that a fellow soldier has appeared alongside him, then moments later, realising he is alone, that it was just his mind playing tricks.
'It was odd to be alone. During the war he grew used to the press of many bodies, to the whiff of other men and their whispering hearts of fear. They were a brotherhood of terror huddled in the trenches...He didn't fear death. He imagined there were few miseries he hadn't experienced...'
The author writes starkly and honestly about the realities facing the men, like Quinn, returning from the war, damaged, battered by their experiences, injured and exhausted; '...their unguarded selves were delicate, unwieldy creatures beneath their uniforms...No wonder so many millions of them died: men are nothing when thrown into the machine of history.' As the world is just waking up to what is left after the War, the flu epidemic strikes.
Then young Sadie appears one day in the hills, and Quinn's encounters with her have an almost magical element, as she claims to know what Quinn has been saying even when she wasn't present, so that 'he was no longer sure what to believe. It seemed equally that all things were possible and also that very little was.' Further, Sadie 'always showed up when he needed her.' They are united in their loneliness and in their need to hide away, waiting and wandering in this remote place, and an unusual but innocent companionship develops.
There are some very touching moments in the story as Quinn gently reestablishes a relationship with his mother. As he revisits the wretched place where the terrible event occurred that has shaped his life, he wishes it possible that the truth could just show itself, 'if only the darkness would speak.'
I was drawn into this story from the start, and Quinn came to life in my mind, a fully formed character, the way his experiences and feelings are described, the reader is there with him and can feel what horror he has endured in the trenches during the war, and how he bears the weight of his past, the terrible knowledge he has carried since he was that young boy who ran away. We also get a feel for the location, the rural bush town of Quinn's birth, where everyone knows everyone else's business.
This is a beautifully written historical literary novel, which is fairly short by today's standards, with an engaging, at times mysterious storyline that gets the reader thinking. At once a sorrowful yet redemptive story of tremendous grief, regret and loss, and of love, survival and belief, this is a book I would definitely recommend, and I am glad to have been introduced to this writer; this is an author whose work I would return to. 4.5/5