Book Review: Foal's Bread (Gillian Mears)
Reviewed by Amanda Tink
Foal’s Bread by Australian Gillian Mears is one of that small but growing group – novels by disabled writers. In that group Foal’s Bread is notable for also featuring not just one, but several, main characters with impairments. Each character has their own relationship to impairment and disability, most of which will, for disabled people, feel familiar in both excruciating and exhilarating ways.
Foal’s Bread is set in rural New South Wales, Australia, between 1926 and 1949 (with a Coda set in the 21st century). Noah Childs (fourteen) and Roley Nancarrow (twenty-three) are champion horse riders who meet at a high jump competition. When they each see the other on a horse for the first time Roley thinks "Though she was a bit rough with her hands, whoever had taught her had done it good. ", and Noah thinks that "only Roley made the job look easy", and so, naturally, they decide to be partners in the "pair of twelve-stone hunters", and they win. Over the next seven years, as they continue to compete together in high jump competitions whenever they have the opportunity, they gradually fall in love and then get married. They have dreams of owning a team of horses and traveling around Australia continuing to compete together in high jump, and so they move in with Roley’s family on One Tree Farm to save money.
Unsurprisingly, tensions and triumphs within the family are the substance of the story, though it’s not as easy as it may at first seem to label each event as one or the other, or only one or the other. The entire book is also haunted by Noah’s secret that, the day before she met Roley, she had a baby that she abandoned in a butter box in the river near One Tree Farm. Moreover, the baby was the result of a sexual relationship she’d had with her uncle until he’d died a couple of months earlier.
The focus that saves Foal’s Bread from being just another farm family story is its rich exploration of impairment and disability: Roley, as the result of being struck by lightning soon after their first child Lainey is born, begins experiencing progressive numbness and other symptoms similar to multiple sclerosis; Noah develops, or rekindles, an addiction to alcohol; their second child George has down syndrome; and Roley’s mother Minna has had a stroke. As a family surviving on what their farm produces, and living for show jumping competitions, impairment and disability mean that they are individually and collectively, constantly navigating and negotiating their relationships with themselves, each other, and the others in their small town. There are the ever-present questions around the authenticity and controllability of symptoms, and what the answers to those questions mean for how much support, agency, and legitimacy the person and their point of view should have, as well as broader themes of jealousy, intimacy, and self-worth.
Foal’s Bread won the 2012 Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award for fiction, and is Mears’ third and final novel. Her first, The Mint Lawn, won the Australian/Vogel literary award for an unpublished manuscript by someone under the age of thirty-five, and was published in 1991. In 1995 her second novel, The Grass Sister, was published, and shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. At about that time Mears experienced the first symptoms of what would ultimately be diagnosed as multiple sclerosis. It is this personal experience that gives nuance to the character of Roley. Contrary to what many nondisabled people seem to believe, acquired impairment does not arrive as a concrete fully-formed presence with an instruction manual on how to respond to it. Often it does not arrive all at once or, like Roley’s, Mears’ and my experiences, it arrives and then develops, so that even if the person experiencing it understands all aspects of it one day, it will be completely different the next. Similarly, Mears draws on experiences of addiction earlier in her life to write that aspect of Noah’s character. Consequently Noah’s volatility when she drinks feels visceral, as does her determination to give it up the next day.
To the same extent that Foal’s Bread benefits tremendously from Mears’ personal experience, it suffers from her lack of experience and/or research, so that the disability aspects of George’s character and story are developed, but not the impairment aspects. Thus, when George is born Roley and Noah decide, against the strongest insistence possible from the hospital, that they will take George home with them rather than let him be taken to "the home for the retarded". Then, once home, the relationship that develops between George and his older sister Lainey is realistically and genuinely valuing and nourishing for both of them. At the same time however, readers are never presented with George’s point of view on anything. This is in stark contrast to the rest of George’s family, minor characters, and even animals, all of whose thoughts are accorded their place in the narrative at some point. Everything the reader learns about George’s internal state is gleaned from interpreting his actions, or from the reactions of the people around him. In other words, we learn that he has experiences of acceptance and discrimination, but we don’t know anything about his bodily experience of acceptance and discrimination, or down syndrome, or anything else for that matter.
Similarly, Minna, who had her stroke before the time period covered by the book, is a character with no trace of her impairment in her internal thoughts or her actions. The sole purpose of her having had a stroke is to provide a distinguishing facial feature to describe, and to use in the same formula that all the disabled characters are subjected to. Their level of visible happiness and/or beauty is directly proportional to the invisibility of their impairment. When Minna is happy "That stroke-damaged cheek was not so noticeable", when she is not Mears uses the physical effect of the stroke to emphasise Minna’s annoyance "Minna shut the little door of the Lighthouse [stove], and her mouth, stroke damage and all, also shut tight."
Equating physical impairment and mood is one example of a general unevenness in the writing throughout the text. There are many times when the personification and hyperbole works to realise atmosphere in ways that the dialogue and actions could not have alone. Equally though, there are also times when it becomes so predictable and repetitive that it flattens the vibrancy of the story.
Nevertheless, an often nuanced representation of impairment and disability, as well as an evident love of interwar years Australia and its people and animals, make this book a pleasure to read. Additionally, if, like me, you are the sibling of someone with an intellectual impairment, and have been longing for a book that represents that relationship as joyful rather than a burden, this is it. At the same time, the absence or stereotyping of aspects of George in particular and disability in general detract, at times substantially, from that pleasure.
Title: Foal's Bread