Occasionally a book so exceptional comes along that you want to greedily devour it in one sitting. Like a new lover you want to spend every moment together and become resentful when forced to part. You eat with it, curl up in bed with it, and pick it up the moment you wake. This rarely happens to me, but it did with Bereft.
Bereft is Chris Womersley’s second novel, and his first, The Low Road, won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction in 2008. If Bereft doesn’t pick up some prestigious awards I’ll be very surprised.
The novel opens with the murder of twelve-year-old Sarah Walker in the ‘fly-speck town of Flint’. Her brother, Quinn, is found at the scene with a bloody knife in his hand, and flees. Ten years later, after fighting in the Great War, Quinn returns to the town. The war has just ended, but the Spanish influenza epidemic is now sweeping across Australia taking more lives. Quinn’s mother is one of those quarantined in her home, teetering on the edge of death. Despite knowing that the town’s inhabitants regard him as a murderer, and that his father and uncle would relish the chance to hang him, he is desperate to make peace with his mother and assure her that the crime was not his. He hides in the bush surrounding the town where he meets the strange and mystical Sadie Fox, a young orphan with whom he develops an uneasy and complex friendship.
Sadie is the same age as Sarah and one gets the sense that fate is offering Quinn the chance to replay the past and carve out a different ending. At times the lines become blurred, and both Quinn and reader are led to wonder whether this strange girl is in fact the ghost of his dead sister. Has Quinn somehow imagined her into existence through the sheer force of longing? Set during a period of history when superstitions are rife and the practice of contacting the dead through séances has gained popularity, it seems anything is possible.
Quinn is plagued both by the death of his sister and his time in the war. He is clearly experiencing post-traumatic stress syndrome and his hearing has been damaged by shell blasts. He suffers from hallucinations, and the after-effects of the gas regularly render him immobile with violent coughing fits. The landscape, which Womersley vividly describes, reflects Quinn’s turmoil. Like him it is scarred, damaged, bereft.
There is nothing particularly original about the novel’s structure and the way the story gradually builds to a conclusion that is designed to satisfy the reader, and yet every sentence is a delight to read. Womersley’s prose is crisp, taut and beautifully constructed. He doesn’t waste a word, expertly propelling us along with the power of his storytelling. From the very first sentence he had me captivated.
Bereft can be read as a Gothic novel, a crime novel, a ghost story, a thriller. Whatever, this is a book of searing, heart-wrenching brilliance that should appeal to a wide range of readers. Simply put, Bereft is one of the best books I’ve read this year.