‘Foal’s Bread’ is grim, jubilant, violent, gentle, magical, heartbreaking and uplifting all at the same time. This book has to be destined to become an Australian classic.
Set in the 1910s and 20s, it follows a family of farmers and horse jumpers – mostly Noey, her husband Roley, and her daughter Lainey. The story isn’t plot driven but there is so much going on…Noey losing a baby as a teen to her pedophile uncle, then marrying young, having two kids, keeping a dairy farm going, Roley getting struck by lightning, Noey and Roley’s mum’s volatile relationship…as well as horse training and breeding, anger problems, alcohol problems, weather problems, sex problems, small town problems, the kids growing up, etc. But it all feels really integrated, and the drama of family life becomes complicated and wondrous, validating human experience in even the most mundane, or most upsetting, situations.
The prose is to die for. It’s brimful of Australian vernacular, not just in its use of ‘fair dinkum’ type words, but the syntax, the words, the characters, the entire story. It’s so poetic and lyrical, and yet also blunt and direct, and managed to convey complex ideas within a few words. The ‘foal’s bread’ – a literal thing that sometimes comes out with the placenta when horses give birth, and which is traditionally kept for luck -that Noey and Roley find and hang over their hut becomes an overarching metaphor for the story, for the love that creeps back into Noey’s heart and through her children and her horses, even in her darkest moments. Even though it sounds like super-obvious symbolism, it doesn’t read like that at all… it really works. Mears make it feel real somehow. Though I imagine some readers might find it a little sentimental.
There are bits that are hard to read, particularly Noey’s memories of her relationship with her uncle, her inability to see the inappropriateness of it all, and some other bad sex stuff that I won’t go into because of spoilers, and Noey’s increasingly bad temper which leads to animal abuse, and a fraught relationship with her family. But mostly the characters are all endearing and infuriating, I hated and loved Noah the whole way through, as I did with most of her family members. It’s hard to say much else about this novel because it encompassed so much. But if you love delicious prose, and don’t mind a character-based, slow burn of a story, then read this one.