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And the band played Waltzing Matilda
on 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.