Bereft by Chris Womersley

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Bereft by Chris Womersley

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: One of the very best novels of this, or any, year, with a scarred war survivor returning to face many other things that scarred him. Completely memorable events, characters and style make this simply supreme.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: January 2012
Publisher: Quercus
ISBN: 9780857386540

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Quinn Walker, a young Australian man fresh from fighting on the European front in World War One, returns to the very town he was drummed out of ten years before, after being accused of raping and killing his own younger sister. Two things have beaten him to the small settlement - one, the global flu pandemic; two a telegram saying he died bravely in action earlier in the war. And the less you know of what he meets and does back in Flint the better, the more to keep this fresh and brilliant book's many intrigues as secret as they were for me.

I say brilliant, because I can hardly pick Womersley up on anything. I did find sometimes characters were unsure of how many days had passed since something happened, which was intentional, and one time when the narration got it wrong, which I guess was a mistake. Also, when we got to the two major twists I was ahead of myself in working them out.

I say fresh, but it's not as if the style is particularly current. Instead it's a lot better - a timeless, concise telling of a excellent story. It's one of those narrations where every word has been strongly considered, but that's never on show; vocab, tricksiness or the author's bravura are never shoved down our throats.

A good story is like medicine, in my opinion, one character says. You will never turn to these pages for the medicine that is laughter, for not only do we have the dark events in Flint then and now, but also the drip, drip flashback to WWI and what Quinn went through. But this is a darkness in sunlight, and as gloomy as the precis could get this is a book of constant variety in pacing and tone, and with a high level of surprise and originality.

The style will probably bring many comparisons out of reviewers. An Australian Cormac McCarthy, perhaps, or Peter Carey returning to his rural, historical roots. The film version that already exists in my head is definitely a Philip Ridley production. It would be easy to make this excellent book a film I would most certainly want to watch, but for now it remains a novel you most certainly should want to read.

The surprise in the end is not that this book, only the author's second, won several awards down under, but that there were awards it didn't win."

For a very different WWI veteran character with a similar facial wound to Quinn, you would probably enjoy The Cocaine Salesman by Conny Braam. But Bereft is now on a par with Brodeck's Report by Philippe Claudel for novels of a man quitting a war to return to face something worse.

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