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Bereft by Chris Womersley

Bereft (2010)

by Chris Womersley

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1831298,956 (3.83)28
It is 1919. The Great War has ended, but the Spanish flu epidemic is raging across Australia. Schools are closed, state borders are guarded by armed men, and train travel is severely restricted. There are rumours it is the end of the world. In the NSW town of Flint, Quinn Walker returns to the home he fled ten years earlier when he was accused of an unspeakable crime. Aware that his father and uncle would surely hang him, Quinn hides in the hills surrounding Flint. There, he meets the orphan Sadie Fox - a mysterious young girl who seems to know more about the crime than she should. A searing gothic novel of love, longing and justice, Bereft is about the suffering endured by those who go to war and those who are forever left behind.… (more)

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I have no idea of the genre in which this book belongs. It seems to belong partly in crime; historical; war; adventure; and fantasy (talking ants!). Gothic, some say. From my perspective it does none of these particularly well, although I generally choose not to read books from any of these categories so I'm not the right person to make a judgement. I found the plot to be very weak and the characters not particularly well drawn or developed. I didn't particularly like the reading of Dan Wyllie in my audio-book version, either. But at least it is available in audio-book form, and I was able to 'read' it as a did my daily stair-climbing exercise. As historical fiction it did give the impression of being reasonably well researched, and I definitely learnt something about post WWI New South Wales. As a story, it worked well enough to distract me from the boredom of spending half an hour going up and down a 13-story building for nearly three weeks. Is that a recommendation? ( )
  oldblack | Jan 26, 2016 |
One stormy day in 1909 in the former gold-rush town of Flint, New South Wales, Quinn Walker is found by his father and uncle standing beside the body of his 12 year-old sister; a bloody knife in his hand. Quinn runs away and is not seen or heard from again until his mother receives a telegram seven years later reporting that he has died, on the battlefields of WWI. However after the war is over Quinn, now 26, is de-mobbed in Sydney and makes his way back to Flint, having been compelled by a spooky encounter while in London. He arrives to find the town in the grip of a world-wide flu epidemic, his own mother among those dying, and everyone so convinced he is guilty his sister’s murder that he will be killed on sight if he is recognised. He hides out in the hills surrounding his old home where he is befriended by a young orphan girl named Sadie while he struggles to find a course of action to prove his claim of innocence.

There has possibly never been a more aptly named novel. Quinn Walker lost his family, his best friend and the thing he knew as his life in one split second one stormy day. Quinn’s mother has, in one way or another, lost all of her children in quick succession. The town of Flint has lost its reason for existing and is slowly dying. A young nation has lost thousands of men to a far-off war and is now losing more people to a deadly disease that is so frightening there are rumours of plague and discussion of the end of the world. In stark, sparse prose and using superb imagery Womersley has depicted the state of being bereft with such nuance and depth that even a reader who has never experienced such an all-consuming loss will feel like they have by the end of this novel.

Through his relationship with Sadie, Quinn is offered a chance at redemption and I suppose it is irrelevant that I spent a good portion of the book wondering if Sadie really existed (this is not as strange as it sounds as there is more than a hint of magical realism about the novel). It is enough that Quinn believes she is real (and no, I’m not saying whether she is or isn’t) as she provided him with the opportunity to offer her the kind of protection he was unable to provide for his sister. Personally I was much more engaged by his encounters with his mother, who was lying feverish and quarantined alone in her home. Full of reminiscence, regret and a palpable longing for things to have worked out differently this was the relationship that tugged at my heart-strings because it felt all too real.

If you are looking for a book that follows all (or indeed any) of the conventions of crime fiction then this is not for you. Aside from the dead body in the first chapter the remainder of the novel is not about the crime except in the most perfunctory way. If anything Bereft owes far more to gothic traditions, though it is at first a stretch to imagine the flat and largely barren central tablelands of New South Wales as the setting for such a tale (no centuries-old castle ruins here). Womersley pulls this off by providing fairly scant details and leaving it up to readers’ imaginations to fill in his deliberate gaps with images that befit the gothic nature of the tale. My conviction that the book doesn’t really belong in the crime genre (it is on the Ned Kelly Awards longlist) is strengthened by the fact that many of the positive reviews I have seen are from people who profess not to be huge fans of the genre.

Womersley’s skills as a writer are not in any doubt. Even his first book (The Low Road) which I did not finish reading had some spectacularly clear imagery and Bereft is brimming with the stuff. His carefully chosen words are also a treat. What I struggle with is the overwhelming bleakness. Normally my days are spent trying to scavenge little spaces in which to sneak more reading time but in this instance I had to psych myself into delving into the book each morning. Even Australian actor Dan Wylie’s excellent narration of the audio book couldn’t help me do anything but dread the next chapter. I wanted to know how the book would resolve (though I thought the ending the only weak element from a plot perspective) but I didn’t want to trudge through the gloom to get there. I’m reasonably sure I don’t want my leisure reading to leave me wanting to curl into a foetal position and weep, though I acknowledge it takes an exceptionally good writer to make that happen.

( )
  bsquaredinoz | Mar 31, 2013 |
Quinn Walker returns to Flint a small NSW town, a bruised and damaged man at the end of WW1. He had fled 10 years eariler after discovering the abused body of Sarah his beloved 12 yr old sister. locals blamed him for the mudrdeer and he has returned to set things straight. Mother is dying from Spanish flu and Quinn shares a heremit like existence with Sadie a young girl who has no family left.

Suspicion, intrigue and suspense make this book a one-sitting reading. the sensitive depiction of the war weary and damaged soldier set against the silence of the bush, bring home the horros that must have been experienced by those poor souls in the trenches.
Worth a second read, well written. ( )
  crgalvin | Jan 10, 2013 |
The frustrating thing about discussing a book like BEREFT is the reason Womersley's the author, and I'm the reader. How do you put into words something as moving, involving, immersing as BEREFT and make it intelligible? No idea, so let's go with the next best option.

"A searing gothic novel of love, longing and justice" sounds, to be frank, not my sort of thing. It's probably the juxtaposition of "gothic" and "love" that somehow or other has my befuddled brain thinking "regency" / "romance". No idea to be honest, but, regardless of why, if THE LOW ROAD hadn't been such a revelation I probably would have gone on ignoring BEREFT in MtTBR. But there was always something that had my eye wandering back to this book, and despite the ridiculous delay in getting started, this turned out to be a one sitting book. Which meant a second reading was required, as once I got to the end, albeit a somewhat rushed ending, I wasn't at all ready to leave Quinn Walker, and had to go back and start over.

BEREFT is the sort of book that crept up on this reader. Set in 1909, a young man returns to his home district after fighting at Gallipoli and then in France in the First World War. He has a history - he fled his home when discovered hunched over the bloodied and abused body of his much loved younger sister. Everyone, including his own father and uncle, assume he killed her, they also vowed to take justice into their own hands should they find him. But post WWI, in the middle of the Spanish Flu epidemic, Walker comes home, desperate to see his mother (who is now dying from the Flu). He is lost, haunted by memories of the war, a sad lonely, bereft figure. His only friend turns out to be a 12-year-old orphan living rough in the bush, hiding from Walker's uncle. Somehow his ability to protect young Sadie Fox becomes his mission, a way of saving her, and himself.

There are touches of the paranormal in BEREFT, but woven, as they are, into the narrative of a man who is struggling anyway with the past and the present, reality and his memories, it is somehow seamless, unexceptional. Perhaps that is because there is so much more to the sense of hope and direction that Sadie gives to Walker that anything that's slightly outside the expected, normal, is somehow acceptable. Anything is okay as long as it gets them through.

But what BEREFT has in spades is intrigue, suspense, and a beautiful sense of love, courage and glimpses of optimism. Reading it was a wonderful experience, and reading it a second time, even knowing the ultimate outcome, just reinforced what a glorious thing it is.

http://www.austcrimefiction.org/review/bereft-chris-womersley ( )
  austcrimefiction | Aug 24, 2012 |
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“Every angel is terrible”
- Rainer Maria Rilke, The Duino Elegies
For Roslyn, who always believed
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On the day twelve-year-old Sarah Walker was murdered in 1909, a storm bullied its way across the western plains of New South Wales and unleashed itself on the fly-speck town of Flint.
Widows, widowers. Orphan-and you know I was already one of those. Do you know, Quinn, there isn’t even a word for a parent who has lost a child?”
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