Review: BEREFT, Chris Womersley

  • Published by Scribe 2010
  • ISBN 978-1-921640-60-5
  • 264 pages
  • Source: my local library

Publisher’s Blurb

It is 1919. The Great War has ended, but the Spanish flu epidemic is raging through Australia. Schools are closed, state borders are guarded by armed men, and train travel is severely restricted. There are rumours it is the end of the world.

In the NSW town of Flint, Quinn Walker returns to the home he fled ten years earlier when he was accused of an unspeakable crime. Aware that his father and uncle would surely hang him, Quinn hides in the hills surrounding Flint. There, he meets a mysterious young girl called Sadie Fox, who encourages him to seek justice — and seems to know more about the crime than she should.

A searing gothic novel of love, longing, and revenge, BEREFT is about the suffering endured by those who go to war and those who are forever left behind.

My Take

Returning to his home town after the Great War Quinn Walker is determined to clear his name of the murder/rape of his younger sister 10 years before. He finds that the man he knows was guilty is now the local policeman, that his father has vowed to kill him if he returns, and his mother is dying from bubonic plague. In fact his mother believes that he is dead, having been killed in the war.

BEREFT draws a harsh landscape and I found it difficult reading. Despite the original murder and the fact that two more take place within the novel’s time frame, I found it difficult to accept the novel as crime fiction, mainly because I think Womersley was trying to write something else. My reservations are shared by Bernadette but not by the glowing reviews that Womersley quotes on his site.

Womersley’s style is carefully crafted, demanding the reader’s full attention, and providing some arresting imagery.

On the day twelve-year-old Sarah Walker was murdered in 1909, a storm bullied its way across the western plains of New South Wales and unleashed itself on the fly-speck town of Flint. Sarah’s murder became the warm, still heart of several days of of frantic activity in which almost every one of the town’s two hundred or so residents had a tale of chaos or loss. Trees cowered and snapped in the winds; horses bolted ….. Dead cows, swollen tight, bobbled about in the floodwater for days. And old Mrs Mabel Crink lost her sight, which partly accounted for the name by which the maelstrom became known: the Blinder.

In the novel Womersley describes the impact that losing its men folk to the Great War had on the small town of Flint, as well as the impact of the war on those who returned. In many ways, although avenging his sister’s death is what keeps Quinn going and cold blooded murder does happen, crime and justice take a back seat.

My rating: 4.4

Awards and listings:

  • Winner ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year
  • Winner of Indie Award for Best Novel
  • Shortlisted for The Age Book of the Year
  • Shortlisted for 2011 Miles Franklin Award
  • Shortlisted for ASL Gold Medal for Literature
  • Shortlisted for Ned Kelly Award for Fiction

Chris Womersley won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First novel in 2008 with THE LOW ROAD

Ned Kelly Awards – short list announced

Announced 8 pm Tuesday 2 August

Best First Fiction

Alan Carter Prime Cut Fremantle Press

David Whish-Wilson Line of Sight Penguin Books

P.M. Newton The Old School Penguin Books

Best Fiction

Angela Savage The Half-Child Text

Geoffrey McGeachin The Diggers Rest Hotel Penguin

Chris Womersley Bereft Scribe Publishing

True Crime

Geesche Jacobson Abandoned- The Sad Death of Dianne Brimble Allen & Unwin

Ross Honeywill Wasted Penguin

Lindsay Simpson & Jennifer Cooke Honeymoon Dive Macmillan

 S.D. Harvey Short Story Award

Robert Goodman Southern Hemisphere Blues

A.S. Patric Hemisphere Travel Guides: Las Vegas For Vegans

Details of this year’s Ned Kelly Awards ceremony to be held as part of the Melbourne Writer’s Festival.

Review: DEAD MAN’S CHEST by Kerry Greenwood

In the 18th instalment of the Phryne (pronounced Fry-knee) Fisher series set in 1920’s Australia, Phryne and her entourage have left Melbourne for a summer holiday in the seaside town of Queenscliff. They are to occupy the home of an anthropologist acquaintance of Phryne’s but when they arrive they find the Johnstons, a servant couple who were to look after the holidaymakers, appear to have left in a hurry and taken all the supplies with them. As well as being wealthy enough to get herself out of most pickles the Right Honourable Phryne is both unflappable and resourceful so soon has the house running smoothly with the help of her extended family. Practicalities dealt with Phryne and company turn to considerations of the Johnston’s disappearance and the alarming matter that has occupied the town’s gossips: who is cutting of the plaits of all the young ladies?

DEAD MAN’S CHEST provides that all too rare phenomenon: an intelligent cosy mystery with the bonus of a sense of humour and set against the backdrop of the roaring twenties. Phryne is the kind of very strong female character who you’ll either love or hate and she has grown on me over time. She is beautiful, rich and intelligent (which could get annoying after a while) but is also a fiercely loyal friend and is far more impressed by a person’s abilities and character than she is their social status. She is also not one to stand idly by when she sees an injustice or other wrong-doing being committed: a trait the world is surely crying out for. She has two adopted daughters who have both been rescued from some form of poverty or danger and during the course of the novel acquires another young charge, a boy named Tinker who starts out as a kitchen-hand but soon becomes integral to Phryne’s crime solving. There are a plethora of other characters to enjoy, both nice and not, but my favourites were a crowd of surrealists who provided just the right smidgen of bizarre that most books could benefit from.

Although fairly easy to follow, as befits a cosy mystery, the plot here has plenty to keep the reader’s attention and there’s a nice balance of background historical detail and plot advancement throughout the story. There’s a film about a local treasure myth being shot in the town which provides for a lot of the action and there are many social gatherings (always accompanied by lashings of marvellously described food) and little adventures to maintain interest. Although this is a long series you could easily start with this book, particularly as it involves only the core group of Phryne’s retinue as she’s not in her usual Melbourne haunts. I have only read a couple of the very early books in this series but I had no trouble picking things up as I went.

Stephanie Daniel’s narration of this novel is outstanding, providing a myriad of accents and voices for the rather large cast of characters but never feeling like it is a forced performance. It has been a long time since I acquainted myself with Phryne Fisher and her extended family and I found myself pleasantly surprised with the meeting. It feels like Greenwood has put just as much work into this instalment as she would have done her first (not something that can be said about all authors with long-running series) and the characters were fresh and interesting. Highly recommended to fans of light historical or cosy mysteries, or those wondering if they should give one a go.

Kerrie has already provided her thoughts on DEAD MAN’S CHEST.

In news for Phryne fans, she is due to hit the small screen next year.

My rating: 3.5/5
Narrator: Stephanie Daniel
Publisher: Bolinda audio [2010]
ISBN: N/A downloaded from
Length: 8 hours, 31 minutes
Format: mp3
Source: I bought it

Review: BEREFT by Chris Womersley

My apologies at the outset for the disjointed feel to this review. I pondered not posting one at all but in the end this is a very accurate reflection of my reaction to the book: I thought some elements of it outstanding and I never want to read it, or anything like it again.

One stormy day in 1909 in the former gold-rush town of Flint, New South Wales, Quinn Walker is found by his father and uncle standing beside the body of his 12 year-old sister; a bloody knife in his hand. Quinn runs away and is not seen or heard from again until his mother receives a telegram seven years later reporting that he has died, on the battlefields of WWI. However after the war is over Quinn, now 26, is de-mobbed in Sydney and makes his way back to Flint, having been compelled by a spooky encounter while in London. He arrives to find the town in the grip of a world-wide flu epidemic, his own mother among those dying, and everyone so convinced he is guilty his sister’s murder that he will be killed on sight if he is recognised. He hides out in the hills surrounding his old home where he is befriended by a young orphan girl named Sadie while he struggles to find a course of action to prove his claim of innocence.

There has possibly never been a more aptly named novel. Quinn Walker lost his family, his best friend and the thing he knew as his life in one split second one stormy day. Quinn’s mother has, in one way or another, lost all of her children in quick succession. The town of Flint has lost its reason for existing and is slowly dying. A young nation has lost thousands of men to a far-off war and is now losing more people to a deadly disease that is so frightening there are rumours of plague and discussion of the end of the world. In stark, sparse prose and using superb imagery Womersley has depicted the state of being bereft with such nuance and depth that even a reader who has never experienced such an all-consuming loss will feel like they have by the end of this novel.

Through his relationship with Sadie, Quinn is offered a chance at redemption and I suppose it is irrelevant that I spent a good portion of the book wondering if Sadie really existed (this is not as strange as it sounds as there is more than a hint of magical realism about the novel). It is enough that Quinn believes she is real (and no, I’m not saying whether she is or isn’t) as she provided him with the opportunity to offer her the kind of protection he was unable to provide for his sister. Personally I was much more engaged by his encounters with his mother, who was lying feverish and quarantined alone in her home. Full of reminiscence, regret and a palpable longing for things to have worked out differently this was the relationship that tugged at my heart-strings because it felt all too real.

If you are looking for a book that follows all (or indeed any) of the conventions of crime fiction then this is not for you. Aside from the dead body in the first chapter the remainder of the novel is not about the crime except in the most perfunctory way. If anything Bereft owes far more to gothic traditions, though it is at first a stretch to imagine the flat and largely barren central tablelands of New South Wales as the setting for such a tale (no centuries-old castle ruins here). Womersley pulls this off by providing fairly scant details and leaving it up to readers’ imaginations to fill in his deliberate gaps with images that befit the gothic nature of the tale. My conviction that the book doesn’t really belong in the crime genre (it is on the Ned Kelly Awards longlist) is strengthened by the fact that many of the positive reviews I have seen are from people who profess not to be huge fans of the genre.

Womersley’s skills as a writer are not in any doubt. Even his first book (The Low Road) which I did not finish reading had some spectacularly clear imagery and Bereft is brimming with the stuff. His carefully chosen words are also a treat. What I struggle with is the overwhelming bleakness. Normally my days are spent trying to scavenge little spaces in which to sneak more reading time but in this instance I had to psych myself into delving into the book each morning. Even Australian actor Dan Wylie’s excellent narration of the audio book couldn’t help me do anything but dread the next chapter. I wanted to know how the book would resolve (though I thought the ending the only weak element from a plot perspective) but I didn’t want to trudge through the gloom to get there. I’m reasonably sure I don’t want my leisure reading to leave me wanting to curl into a foetal position and weep, though I acknowledge it takes an exceptionally good writer to make that happen

As usual I am out of step with the majority, who have heaped accolades upon Bereft including the best novel gong from the Australian independent booksellers in March and many more enthusiastic reviews including those at ANZ LitLovers, Bite the Book and Crikey.

My rating: I’ve no idea, ask me when I’ve put the razor blades away
Narrator: Dan Wylie
Publisher: Bolinda audio [2011]
ISBN: N/A downloaded from
Length: 7 hours, 44 minutes
Format: mp3
Source: I bought it

THE LOW ROAD, Chris Womersley

THE LOW ROAD won Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction in 2008

Scribe Publications 2007, 280 pages, ISBN 978-1-921215-47-6

Wild, a doctor de-registered because of his morphine addiction, cast out by his wife, and on the run from the law, checks into a dingy motel on the fringe of the city. He is rather obviously a doctor, carrying a medical bag with him, and so it is to him that Sylvia, the motel manager, turns when a young man with a gunshot wound is dumped on her doorstep.

The wounded man Lee is also on the run. He was shot during what should have been a simple money retrieval job, complicated by the fact that he has decided to keep the rather paltry sum of money for himself. Now Josef, the man who sent Lee to get the money, wants it back. Or rather his boss wants it back.

Wild was a GP and has never dealt with gunshot wounds and he decides to take Lee into the country to the house of doctor he knows. Their subsequent journey with Josef in pursuit is quest-like, with critical consequences for all concerned.

THE LOW ROAD was shortlisted for the 2006 Victorian Premier’s Award for an unpublished manuscript. In 2008 it won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First novel. But to be quite honest, this book could be set almost anywhere, with very rare references to its Australian setting. Neither the setting nor the characters exude particularly Australian characteristics. My guess is that this will give the book a wider audience. There will be readers who won’t recognise anything Australian about it.

Although there are elements of mystery in the strands of the story, and Lee and Wild’s individual back-stories are cleverly unpacked as the main action progresses, for me THE LOW ROAD seems to have a lot in common with Westerns, while still being unmistakeably crime fiction. In style, particularly in the author’s economy with words, it has a lot in common with Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD, which also works on the idea of a journey taking place in a harsh and unforgiving landscape, which I read a couple of years back.

THE LOW ROAD has one stylistic feature I feel I must comment on. Womersley has presented it without punctuation marks in dialogue. It is something that I have noticed recently in at least a couple of other novels. While contributing to the book’s style, it has the effect of requiring the reader to focus closely on who is saying what.

Here is an example: A conversation between Josef and his boss Marcel.

Yes Marcel.
We’ve got a problem.
Josef lowered himself into an overstuffed armchair that was here when he moved in. It was an enormous thing, almost capable of swallowing him whole. He stifled a sigh. What is it?
You heard from Lee? You seen him?
Josef sucked at his gold tooth. No.
No. Why?
Because. Neither have I.

As I read on through the novel, the lack of quotation marks, which struck me as odd at first, no longer seemed to matter. There were times when I had to re-read a passage to make sure I knew who had said what, but it does make me wonder if we are going to see more books written in this way, and whether this is an impact of word processed writing.

I thought I would make a comment on the cover design, which seems to me to be unusually good too. I’ve spent a long time looking at it. it appears to be a view of a harsh landscape, perhaps the road through shards of glass. It works really well with the fractured view of life the flawed characters in this novel have. Why “THE LOW ROAD”? Well, I’m going to let you puzzle over that one for yourselves. It reminded me of the words of Loch Lomond:

    Oh ye’ll tak’ the high road and I’ll tak’ the low road,

Chris Womersley was born in 1968 and that makes him a relatively young author. He currently lives in Sydney and has contributed stories and reviews to a variety of journals and newspapers.

My rating: 4.7

BEREFT by Chris Womersley this week won Best Fiction in the Australian Indies Award and has been longlisted in the 2011 Miles Franklin Award. The author’s web site is here.