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

12 thoughts on “Review: BEREFT by Chris Womersley

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  6. Thanks for such an honest and thoughtful review. There are authors like that who write beautifully and can evoke a place and time, etc., but whose work is that bleak.. I admit that, powerful as the writing is, I will probably wait to read this one…


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