By Sophia Whitfield
Gillian Mears grew up riding horses in northern New South Wales. Together with her sisters she had a passion for horse jumping. She was horse mad and horse book mad. Nothing was more important than going to the local chemist to pick up rolls of film to check out her form on a horse.
Mears’ connection to the land and affinity with horses permeates every aspect of this book.
Set in northern New South Wales just before the Second World War. Foal’s Bread tells the story of two generations of the Nancarrow family, their hopes, their dreams and the devastating loss of both.
The book opens with 14-year-old Noah pregnant to her Uncle Nipper. She goes off alone to quietly have the baby and then floats it down the river in a wooden butter box. She is relieved to be rid of the burden, but oblivious to the far reaching consequences this will have on her life. She remains haunted by her actions throughout the novel.
A few days later Roley, a champion high jumper, watches in adoration as a fearless Noah takes her jumps at the local show. The gentle Roley gives Noah a small gift for luck – the foal’s bread, a piece of gristle found in a foal’s mouth. Together they embark on a journey full of the passion of youth.
Noah is at home at One Tree amongst the horse, but she has to endure the prejudice of her mother in law, Minna. Lainey, Roley and Noah’s eldest daughter, is strong and has inherited both her parents’ talent with horses. George, their youngest, is born with a disability. Roley fights to keep his son at home, refusing to bow to pressure to place his son in an institution.
This is Mears first book in 16 years. She has been ill, her life unfairly swept aside by the ravages of multiple sclerosis. Themes of disability reign heavily throughout this book.
Roley is struck down after three lightening strikes, which cause numbness with no name. He tries to pursue different avenues of help in the search for a cure, but eventually has to accept his condition. Finally realising that he can no longer ride his horses.
Despite the devastating sadness of this book, Mears sprinkles her writing with symbols of hope. The foal’s bread, hanging up in the house, has formed into a heart shape and Roley’s jumping colours are hearts.
Foal’s Bread is a meditation on horses, trusted and reliable friends, and the gift they can give their rider.
Mears writes with sensitivity when she describes the anger Roley feels towards his once reliable body. At the same time she conjures up the redemptive power found in the unexpected.
Although it has been 16 years since Mears last book, she says she began writing this novel at the beginning of 2009, completing her first draft nine months later. Up until this point she had been collecting details to assist her with the book, mostly about horses. During this time she also wrote short stories whilst having to contend with the brutality of her condition.
She writes with such sincerity particularly about the far-reaching effects of disability. Her prose is beautiful. It will make you weep, but most importantly it will challenge you to rediscover the things that are important in life.
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