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3.9 out of 5 stars
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VINE VOICETOP 500 REVIEWERon 8 November 2013
Quinn Walker was only a boy when he was discovered standing over the dead and defiled body of his sister Sarah, deep in the Blue Mountains in 1909. Quinn ran away and was never seen again; had anyone in the village caught him he would have been strung up. Few shed any tears, then, when Quinn was reported to have died in the First World War.

Now, in 1919, Quinn's mother Mary lies on her deathbed, enduring the Spanish Flu that is sweeping the country. Perhaps as she reconciles her life, she remains troubled by the incidents of ten years ago. She knew that Quinn and Sarah had started to become "inappropriate", but she can't bear the thought that she lost two of her three children that day. If only she could see them both for one last time...

Miraculously, then, Quinn reappears having apparently escaped the War with severe facial injuries, but escaped nevertheless with his wife. So Quinn decides he wants to see his family again, even if it has to be from a distance, peeking through the windows at night. One wrong step and he will be recognised and lynched, so it is a good fortune indeed that he is helped by Sadie Fox, a young girl trying to avoid being packed off to an orphanage following the death of her parents.

Chris Womersley creates a tension. The fear of capture is palpable, but pales against the fear as the true secrets of 1909 are revealed. We find a community that is on the edge of survival, battling the forests, the elements, being built out of rocks and logs. The community cannot afford division; cannot afford scepticism. If bad things happen, the most convenient solution will be favoured.

The writing in Bereft is luminous. The beauty of the bush shines through from the pages. The love and affection and loyalties are conveyed with just a few, perfectly chosen words. The story manages to convey ambiguity and magical realism without any apparent effort. The story switches time periods; switches from global to local and back to global without missing a beat. Every character is carefully drawn, nuanced with shades of grey. We have deep questions of identity; we have the horrors of war.

And, as the narrative progresses, the true nature of the story gradually emerges. This is chilling, spine-tingling. It takes what would have been an excellent novel to a whole new dimension.

It is difficult to explain just how good Bereft is without exposing its secrets. But fortunately, it is not a slow-burner; there's no time wasted in warming up. It's fantastic from the first sentence and it just keeps getting better.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 30 June 2015
' .. a storm bullied its way across the western plains of New South Wales and unleashed itself on the flyspeck town of Flint.’

Who murdered Sarah Walker? Sarah’s 16 year old brother Quinn was found next to her body with a knife in his hand. He fled.
Ten years later – some three years after his mother had received a telegram stating that he is missing in France and presumed dead – Quinn is on his way home. Ex- sergeant Quinn Walker is one of the wounded Anzacs, his body damaged by gas, his face partially mangled by shrapnel. Quinn throws the medal he received overboard, but cannot so readily dismiss the Great War. He is haunted by memories of what he saw and experienced.

Once back in Australia, Quinn heads for Flint. He may be a long way from the battlefields of Europe, but the influenza pandemic is wreaking its own havoc on Australia. Quinn tries to remain hidden outside Flint, but his presence becomes known to at least two people. One of the two, Sadie Fox, is a twelve-year old orphan. Who is Sadie Fox, and how can she know as much as she does about the world around her, and about Sarah’s murder? Sadie herself is trying to hide: can Quinn protect her?

Quinn’s mother is dying of influenza. He visits her. She is unsure whether he is real, or whether her fever enables her to visualise him. She is also unsure whether he murdered Sarah, and there is some knowledge he cannot share with her. These visits are a critical part of the novel: two people suffering, each able to offer some comfort to the other.

‘Do you know, Quinn, there isn’t a word for a parent who has lost a child … There is a hole in the English language. It is unspeakable. Bereft.’

I found this novel haunting. While some elements did not work for me as well as others, the tragedy of Quinn held my attention and my sympathy. And as the story unfolded, and more information became available about Sarah’s death, I found myself thinking about the various ways in which one can become bereft. And Quinn? What chance does he have?

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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on 19 January 2013
It's really difficult to score this book, and on balance I'm going for 3.5 stars with the benefit of rounding it up to 4. The reason is that Bereft is a extremely well written novel with vivid language and a plot that creates a strong sense of intrigue and tension. But the elements of the book that make it stand out in such a way are never actually explained and are never brought to a conclusion in the end, which undermines what came before.

Just to put that into some context, as a 16 year old boy Quinn Walker flees from his home town after being wrongly accused of the rape and murder of his sister. But he knows who did commit that heinous crime. He returns to his hometown 10 years later after fighting in the Great War, knowing that the townspeople (including his father) will kill him if they find out about his return. Whilst in the hills surrounding the town he comes across and befriends a young orphan called Sadie Fox, who has an impossible knowledge of just about everything to do with him and the town, including the facts surrounding his sister's murder.

It is essentially the character of Sadie, along with what she knows and what she does, that creates this intriguing and unsettling atmosphere throughout the book. And it is no secret that there is a heavy supernatural element to her behaviour. But the problem is that the book simply never explains how it is that she has this extensive knowledge, and how it is that she seems able to do and predict the impossible.

It would be wrong to say that it spoils the book, because it clearly doesn't, and the strength of the writing generally is there irrespective of the strength of the ending. But what it does do is leave a glaring question entirely unanswered, and whilst that is not always a bad thing, I tend to feel that it usually is, and I certainly think it is in this case. It makes me think that the author doesn't in fact know the answer to the question, but whatever the explanation it leaves a lingering sense of dissatisfaction mixed in with all the positive feelings about the book.

And that's it really. Bereft shows some fantastic writing and descriptive ability that kept me enthralled until the end. Unfortunately the end didn't provide the closure that it needed to, leaving me with somewhat mixed feelings about a book that undoubtedly still has a lot going for it.
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VINE VOICEon 9 May 2012
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
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on 28 March 2012
The year is 1919 and Quinn Walker is returning to his hometown of Flint in New South Wales after fighting in WWI. This is not going to be some happy emotional family reunion as the reason Quinn left was that ten years earlier he was found seeming to have raped and murdered his sister, he fled. His return seems timely as Australia is in the grips of the Spanish flu epidemic, in fact many believe it is the end of the world, and when the end is nigh you have very little to lose. Now returning, undecided if he will face his accusers or not without proof it wasn't him, sheltering in the hills around Flint he meets Sadie a young girl living in secret like him and as these two outsiders form a bond of friendship they both realise her present and his past are more linked than either of them could have imagined.

I am aware that the last line in that paragraph above is a little bit clichéd and sounds rather melodramatic, yet in essence that is how the plot goes, it isn't a melodramatic book however and that is what holds me back from giving it the `gothic' label that I have seen in reviews since finishing the book and mulling it over. It does have elements of the gothic but despite the nature of the tale it tells this novel is rather quiet and understated until it leads to its climax. It has also been labelled as a crime novel and in some ways it is, there is a mystery at the heart of the book and yet it is never a whodunit, in fact that aspect of the book is really bubbling away in the background as we look at the effects of war and epidemic on people at the time.

It is this combination that I think makes this book such a brilliant read. You have the war and its effects, and in many ways the understated element of the horrors we read of and see in Quinn himself are the reasons they hit home, a country and its people believing the world may be ending, you even get some séances in Victorian London thrown in and yet it never feels too much, nothing seems out of place. Its historical, thrilling, has some magical elements (in fact while I loved the séance and how that worked into the story, there was an animal sacrifice that I just didn't see the rhyme or reason for, small quibble) and most importantly is beautifully written. It's understated but highlights the drama of the time; it's to the point yet descriptive and wonderfully builds the brooding atmosphere and heat before the storm, a metaphoric aspect if ever there was one and one which again made me think of Catherine Hall's `The Proof of Love', it's writing that quietly holds you and takes you away to a calm darkness.

Since finishing the book I have been off finding out more about it and the author. It seems this book was pretty much long listed for every book award in Australia last year and I can certainly see why. `Bereft' is one of those books that is set very much in its time and yet asks you to look back and put the pieces together. I like this effect in books as it makes me feel a little bit clever. It also makes this book nicely merge the divide between literary and thriller in many ways. The prose it beautiful, the characters fully drawn, there is also a mystery at its heart giving it that page turning quality, yet never at the expense of any of its other winning factors. It also covers a very interesting period in a countries history I knew nothing about yet came away with the atmosphere still lingering with me long after finishing the book. Highly recommended.
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on 4 February 2012
It's the story of Quinn Walker, who leaves home suddenly and under suspicion when his sister is murdered. He joins Australia's efforts in WWI, travels the world, and returns with a dangerous desire to go back to the small town that would love to string him up for the crime.

Injured in the War, he suffers from the loss of a portion of his face, injuries from the mustard gas, and all the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. At points early on, it's easy to question whether he is recounting events correctly, or if he's hallucinating, and these ratchets up the tension since either way, it affects his actions. The small town of Flint has suffered during wartime as well, as the Spanish Flu has killed many, and this scarred stranger (as he disguises himself) is not welcomed.

Hiding in the hills, he eventually meets a young girl who, significantly, is the age that his sister was when died. She's been orphaned by the flu, and is essentially a feral animal that refuses the very protection it most needs. They make an unlikely and bickering duo, and the details she knows of his sister's murder are disturbing. As he struggles with reality, his injuries, and the impending death of his mother, he's also trying to figure out a way to clear his name, aided only by this little girl who seems to encourage violence with a sinister air.

Or is she? Or is he imagining it? Is he tormented by guilt? What he saw in the War? Where does his reality begin, and the hallucinations end?

This is one book I stayed with an entire long afternoon, and was completely (enjoyably) immersed in the tension and the scenery. Womersley writes descriptively but without sounding like he's rattling off a list of details....the descriptions somehow mingle into the narrative. A bit of clumsy foreshadowing early on led me to guess the plot fairly easily, but the author still threw in some unexpected twists and complications. The characters of Quinn and Sadie are complicated and compelling; the other main characters a bit more stereotypical (one a generic bad guy). The beauty of it is in the prose: concrete, detailed, yet fast-paced. There's suspense in every interaction between Quinn and Sadie, which is really hard to pull off. Realistically, guessing the plot was irrelevant--the creation of unique characters is where the author's gift is clear.

Womersley has a previous book, The Low Road, that I will look for next. He reminds me a tiny bit of Tim Winton in the apparent knowledge of the Australian landscape and its feature, but their voices are completely different. I wouldn't be surprised if this novel was someday made into a film...it has all the elements that would make a suspenseful and visually beautiful film.
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VINE VOICEon 24 February 2012
In 1919, a soldier of the Great War, Quinn Walker returns to Australia where the Spanish flu epidemic is raging. He is drawn back to Flint, a small town in New South Wales from where he fled ten years previously having been accused of murder. The townsmen, including his own father and uncle, have never forgiven him and have vowed to hang him should he return. Aware of this, Quinn keeps to the town's surrounding hills, unsure of what to do next.

A young girl named Sadie Fox finds Quinn above the town and a bond is formed. Sadie seems to know, and share, Quinn's darkest fear. In fact, she seems to know a lot. With Sadie's help, Quinn learns the only way he can lay his past to rest.

Bereft is written in third-person narrative, subjectively following Quinn's actions and train of thought. Quinn is damaged by the Great War, not just physically but mentally too, and we follow him back to his hometown where his survival is dependant on not being seen. His memories of what happened in Flint ten years earlier and of what happened during the Great War are never far away.

Sadie's discovery of Quinn sparks an unusual, if slightly uneasy, relationship between him, a veteran of the Great War, and her, a lone young orphan girl. Some might call their relationship "odd", and to some extend it is, but it is an entirely innocent one. They see each other as the one they miss.

Despite it being such an atmospheric, haunting and grim story, Bereft is beautifully written, but it did have me wondering at times if certain things were real. Bereft is not a "whodunnit" (as I think that part is pretty obvious early on), but makes for compelling reading with its story of survival, guilt and grief. The story slowly gathers pace until it reaches its climax and it, perhaps, borders both literary and crime fiction. It certainly isn't your standard crime thriller, it's thoughtful and deeper with its story of human tragedy, consequences of actions and regret.

All in all, Bereft is a good read and one I'd certainly recommend to anyone looking for some great Australian fiction.
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on 12 July 2012
Quinn is a haunted man: once by his sister's blood on his hands (and his knowledge of what happened to her before her death) and again by his experiences in the Great War. Returning home 10 years after running away from Sarah's murder and the accompanying accusations, Quinn seeks redemption, but also fears for his own life at the hands of those who once knew him. Hiding in the hills, he is befriended by an edgy and curious young girl, Sadie, who convinces him that he needs to avenge his sister's killer in order to move on with his life. But can he first tell his ailing mother the truth, and is he really capable of murder?

There are many ghosts in this short novel, most of them still living. Quinn himself is hollow after his experiences, and there are moments when Sadie and Sarah are confused in his mind. Quinn's mother is floating on the cusp between two worlds, and his father is a bystander, relegated to the veranda, where he is safe from the sickness.

Womersley's prose is simple but descriptive, perfectly capturing Quinn's beleaguered spirit, although (for me) not quite the stifling and oppressive expansiveness of the Australian sky. There was much scope for ambiguity which I feel Womersley failed to capitalise on, and instead the narrative moves on quickly, yielding few surprises. We know quite early on who are the `goodies' and who are the `baddies', and, without any true spoilers, let me assure you that despite Quinn's damaged background, the ending is `hopeful'.

This book did not `take my breath away' as a cover quote suggested it might, nor did it get under my skin. Despite the potentially intriguing friendship between Quinn and the quixotic, mysterious Sadie, there was ultimately a lack of tension or depth as the story proceeded towards its more or less inevitable ending without really scraping the surface of its characters or themes. Although very readable, this book will not haunt me.
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on 12 August 2012
When we first meet Quinn he's found holding his dead sister Sarah in his arms with a bloody knife in his hand, fearing that no-one will believe he didn't kill her he panics and disappears into the hills never to be heard of again. The story then fast forwards ten years to 1919 when Quinn has returned from the battlefields of the Great War to clear his name once and for all.

He's back hiding out in the hills behind the town but during secret visits to his parents home he discovers that the town has been hit by an influenza epidemic, an epidemic that has taken many lives and finds that his own mother is extremely ill and not expected to live. Will he be able to see her before it's too late and does she believe he killed Sarah?

Quinn soon realises that he's not alone in the hills, and hopes that it's not the townsfolk who want to see him hang for the crime he was accused of, but he soon discovers that he's being watched by 12-year-old Sadie Fox. Why is she also hiding out in the hills and what is her story?

In Quinn we find a likeable character who has been wronged and Sadie a young girl who is lost and vulnerable. At first they are both wary of each other but soon they come to an unlikely arrangement to look out for each other to try and discover the truth they are both looking for.

At times I did find it a little uncomfortable reading of a friendship between an adult male and a young pre-teen girl, even though their relationship was completely innocent, but overall I did enjoy reading this book. It was quite obvious from early on who the real killer was but that did not stop me from wanting to carry on reading this book.
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VINE VOICEon 29 November 2017
I loved this. I read it when I first purchased it, some time ago, and have just re-read it and got even more from it the second time around. The settings are beautifully evoked and the characters fairly believable.Set mainly after WW1, Quinn returns to a home town he had to leave before the war, determined to discover the secret of a rape and murder. He meets Sadie, also an outcast. Their intertwined fates are what made the book so enjoyable for me, and although some elements of the plot are a bit predictable and the 'wrongdoers' rather sketchily covered, the prose is a delight, the landscape is so real that when you lift your eyes from the book you are amazed that you are not in Australia (unless, of course, you are reading it in Australia), and the overall experience of reading the book is very satisfying.
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