By Chris Womersley
Published by Quercus
Bereft is the second novel by Australian journalist and literary reviewer Chris Womersley. As the author explained in an exclusive piece written for Book After Book, inspiration for him is “a series of small insights that coalesce over several months – sometimes years – into a bunch of characters living in a particular time and place, each of them with their own set of problems”.
In Bereft, the sense of time and place is particularly clear. The year is 1919, the Great War has ended and the Spanish flu epidemic is raging across Australia as Quinn Walker returns to his hometown of Flint, in New South Wales. His return from war, however, is not anticipated with joy and elation. In fact, nobody is waiting for him.
Apart from the fact that he is believed to have died at the front, Quinn hasn’t set foot in Flint since he was accused of the murder of his younger sister ten years earlier. In town he is known as “the murderer” and even his own father has vowed to kill him should he ever meet him again.
So why does Quinn return to Flint? Is it about vengeance? Atonement? Both?
Bereft is not a crime story. Yes, a crime was committed but more important than finding the perpetrator, here, are the consequences of that crime. The ripples in the water, so to speak. Quinn’s grief, sense of guilt and loneliness take centre stage. A loneliness that is somehow dispersed by the presence of Sadie Fox, a young and mysterious girl whom he meets while hiding in the hills.
Who is Sadie Fox? An orphan who is trying to evade the unwanted attentions of Robert Dalton, local constable as well as Quinn’s despised uncle? The ghost of Quinn’s dead sister or someone channelling her? Does this odd guardian angel even exist? Womersley lets readers use their imagination to fill the gaps.
The novel abounds in emotions yet the narrative – despite having every right to be – is not overly dramatic. It is dark, brooding, subdued. Throughout the book I felt like there was a constant tension building and ready to erupt into violent passions but this sense of foreboding never quite materialised. This, together with a wonderfully poetic way with words, is what makes Bereft so powerful.
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