With his taut prose and assured language and imagery, critics compare his writing to that of American novelist Cormac McCarthy as Womersley writes, in Bereft, of the inhospitable Australian bush landscape as “riven and tortured” and the Angel of Death appearing before Jim Gracie, “…a raggedy man, with forearms like twists of rope.”
Quinn Walker returns to the New South Wales town of Flint following the end of the First World War and during an influenza pandemic that is sweeping the nation (and the rest of the globe). A decade earlier Walker had fled his home, caught with the battered dead body of his younger sister and a knife in his hand.
Haunted by that tragedy and the horrors of the war in Europe, part of his face mangled by shrapnel, Walker needs to confront the deep scars of his past. But he must be careful, knowing that his father and uncle will as sure hang him if he reveals his identity – even though, three years earlier, a war-office telegram had been received informing the family of Quinn Walker’s death.
Quinn thus hides in bushland close to the family farm, surrounded by his nightmares and hallucinations of trench-life and wartime battles. But, in secret, he also visits his dying mother, sick with influenza and quarantined at the family farm.
Scrabbling to exist, unsure of the reasons why he has returned, he meets Sadie, an ethereal 12 year-old orphan. Living rough, avoiding the authorities, Sadie knows more than she should about the past, but through her strange and knowing ways, protects Quinn from himself and his uncertainties.
Tough but fragile, it is Sadie who provides a focus for Quinn, offering salvation and redemption in his guilt for not protecting his sister a decade earlier. She also offers the opportunity for vengeance and justice.
Grief and guilt litter the pages of Bereft. The small town has been decimated of its male population by the war. The influenza pandemic claims more lives. Dying, Quinn’s mother whispers to her returned son of the loss of her children. In one of the most emotional passages in the book, she tells him “…there isn’t a word for a parent who has lost a child . . . There is a hole in the English language. It is unspeakable. Bereft.”
But it is Quinn who is ultimately bereft: the loss of his beloved sister, the loss of his family, the loss of his childhood, the loss of his innocence.
Brooding, heart-wrenching and moving, Bereft is a compelling second novel from Chris Womersley and which formed one of only three novels on the 2011 Miles Franklin shortlist (the others being When Colts Ran by Roger McDonald and, the eventual winner, Kim Scott and That Deadman Dance).