Review by Rosa Holman
“The name Chris Womersley may not be familiar to you yet, but one suspects that if he continues to produce fiction comparable to the quality of this latest novel he will carve out a respectable place for himself on the Australian literary scene. And Bereft, his second novel, is a quintessentially Australian story.
As a soldier returning home to rural NSW from the European front-line, Quinn Walker personifies the post-WW1 mood of world-weary disillusionment. A flu epidemic is raging and the nation is gripped by apocalyptic fears and hopelessness. Not only has the war left Quinn facially disfigured and suffering the brutal effects of gassing, his homecoming is overshadowed by the accusation of his having murdered his sister, Sarah, ten years before. Thus estranged from his family and physically ailing, Quinn’s seems a particularly bleak story. He is essentially homeless, camping out on the outskirts of his old country town, existing from day-to-day on small portions of food and fitful sleep.
Despite his determination to see his dying mother and clear his name, Quinn remains anchored to his past life, slipping into reveries of his childhood and the terror and revulsion of his war days. At first Quinn appears to be the archetypal damaged war hero: withdrawn and suffering from post-traumatic stress. Womserley has lent his character some subtle marks of distinction; Quinn has retained the Christian faith he inherited from his mother. He clings almost desperately to the surviving remnants of his devotion in his homecoming and the novel is peppered with beautifully suggested religious symbology.
Initially the narrative of Bereft is not particularly remarkable: a young man yearning for his mysteriously killed sister, who appears idealized and impossibly beatific in his reminiscences. (The whispered accusations from family members of an incestuous relationship reminded me initially of the tenor of Beautiful Kate, where similarly a brother returns to his childhood home and pines for a deceased sister against a harshly unforgiving Australian landscape). But Womersley’s novel is differentiated by the introduction of Sadie: an orphan who roams the countryside and possesses some remarkable powers. The relationship between Quinn and Sadie quickly becomes intriguing; it is neither wholly fraternal nor romantic but exists on a strange anarchic and almost esoteric level. Together, the pair set out to reassert justice, all the while fleeing persecution themselves.
Womserley is a gifted writer; he evokes the countryside of NSW with precise description and some beautifully crafted passages. Similarly, his portrait of war is eloquently and brutally rendered, lending the novel a vivid historical backdrop. But perhaps the greatest achievement of Bereft is Womserley’s ability to generate genuine suspense and intrigue as the narrative mounts. Readers will find themselves enthralled by the delicate portraits of the characters, their seemingly insurmountable hardships and defiant means of overcoming injustice. The landscape that had seemed so soulless and barren with Quinn’s arrival becomes the site of ritual and archaic secrets. This is certainly a sober novel, but it is not without narrative tension and moments of high drama.”