Thursday, May 26, 2011

Review: Bereft by Chris Womersley

I am very excited about this novel by Australian author Chris Womersley.  It is several days since I finished it, and an echo of the story haunts me still.

Bereft opens at the completion of WWI, with Australian soldier, 26 year old Quinn Walker returning to his home town of Flint in rural New South Wales.   Quinn, now a decorated soldier, has not set foot in Flint for ten years.  When Quinn was 16, his 12 year old sister Sarah was brutally murdered in the small town, and Quinn was accused of the crime.  The Spanish influenza epidemic is also reaping many victims in Australia at the time of Quinn's return, including his mother, who is dying.  Quinn is dazed and desperate after his unspeakable experiences in the trenches in Europe and the unresolved turmoil over his sisters death.  Quinn returns to Flint looking for answers.

This is an extraordinary novel that works on multiple levels.   It is about trauma and its aftermath.  The devastation caused by killing is explored on the individual level and also the level of the family and township.  The murder of Sarah Walker devastated Quinn and his entire family.  No one recovered.   Womersley also powerfully depicts the impact of trench warfare on the returning soldier, in this case Quinn.  His body and spirit are well and truly broken as he stumbles into town determined to try and make sense of things.

Womersley writing is faultless, direct and punchy.  At just 264 pages the novel struck me as a refreshing change from the "more is more" length of much modern fiction.

The atmosphere the author creates is spine tingling.  The hard, hot and remote Australian bush masterfully evokes a sense isolation and discomfort.  The story is engaging and creepy.  I am not in a book club, but I think Bereft would make the perfect selection for a discussion as it is not only a powerful story, but covers a range of themes that are difficult to tackle, and the ending is deliberately ambiguous.  An uncertain ending will not be everyone's idea of a good time, but I found it haunting and satisfying in this case.  I am thoroughly impressed by this original work, and might even have to read it again before too long.


  1. I've been meaning to read this since I met Chris Womersley when I worked at a Writer's festival last year, but whenever I was in a bookstore I'd blank on his name and the name of the book so I couldn't find it! Luckily I remembered a few weeks ago and picked up the book (on sale too) I haven't read it yet, but from how you've described it I can't see myself having too much trouble falling for it!

  2. How wonderful that you met him! I had not heard of him before stumbling across this book recently when visiting friends in Sydney. He has written another novel I believe called The Low Road, I will have to look into that one too. I really look forward to hearing what you think of Bereft.

  3. God, I keep kicking myself that I haven't read this yet, I've got to get my hands on a copy now!

  4. oops, I also meant to say I loved Breath, I think my favourite of Tim Winton's, that I've read of course. There's something so powerful about the way his 'simple' sentences convey so much. And he really is a man who understands the ocean.

  5. I added this to my TBR list after it made one of the prize lists here. I had meant to read The Low Road before now. Maybe one day.

  6. Sometimes an ambigious ending is the perfect way to end a novel - particularly one that sounds as intricate and thought-provoking as this one. I don't like such books to be wrapped up neatly.


Comments are very welcome.