The new novel by Chris Womersley is a dark tale with Gothic sensibilities. Womersley portrays a world of sadness and pain, set in 1919 in the aftermath of the First World War and in the midst of the Spanish Flu epidemic.
Ten years earlier Quinn Walker had fled his hometown of Flint when he was accused of murdering his sister. Ending up on foreign battlefields Quinn is once again faced with violence and tragedy. Surviving the war, scarred and damaged, he receives a message from his dead sister to come home to “save” her.
Womersley wraps the misery of Quinn’s situation and the destruction of his family into the gloom and darkness of a nation attempting to recover from deep loss.
The great strength of this novel is Womersley’s ability to generate a sense of time and place, tied with a mysterious undertow “The ground was hard and rocky. Scottish thistle bloomed everywhere. Even the native trees looked to have grown not from this country but, rather, to have been thrust – unwilling, straining skyward – into the soil from which they now attempted to writhe free”.
His language is sparse but beautifully descriptive “She wore a ragged dress that might once have been blue but had faded to the colour of a week-old bruise.”
On returning home, Quinn befriends a mysterious orphan, Sadie Fox. Like Quinn she is alone and afraid and proves to be one of the strongest characterisations in the book. Her intimate knowledge of the townspeople and the murder of Quinn’s sister provides the supernatural element of this story. Is she real or a figment of Quinn’s war-tortured mind? Could she be the ghost of his sister, Sarah? Or is she simply a frightened child in desperate need of protection?
The novel also raises questions of justice and retribution with some criticising the lack of “public” justice for Quinn in the ending. How much do we all rely on our “good name” in our public worlds? If that was taken away from us, would we only feel truly vindicated when our innocence is as widely proclaimed as our suspected guilt had been?
The issue of Quinn’s guilt or innocence is dealt with very early in the novel, which was perhaps a little disappointing, I would have liked a little more ambiguity of the did he/didn’t he/if not who did it kind. However, Womersley makes it clear in an interview with Katya Quigley on ABC Mid North Coast Radio his intention was always to make Quinn a sympathetic character, one of the victims of the storyline.
Winner of the 2011 Indie Award for Fiction and shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, among a slew of other nominations, Bereft, is a beautifully written novel with a clear place in Australian literature.
I read Bereft as part of the Book Club on ABC Mid North Coast Radio, you can click below to hear Katya’s interview with Chris Womersley and The Book Club’s impressions of the novel.