Chris Womersley’s latest book
A child who loses its parents is called an orphan.
But there is no word for a parent who loses a child. Bereft will have to do.
And that’s the title of Chris Womersley’s latest book, which revolves around the rape and murder of a little girl called Sarah in the years before World War I.
The crime is discovered by the girl’s uncle, entering a shed where he finds Quinn Walker, Sarah’s inseparable and beloved older brother, kneeling over his dead sister with blood on his clothes and a knife in his hand.
Terrified, Quinn, in his mid-teens, runs away from the western NSW town of Flint, and disappears.
Ten years later, having served in the war, Quinn returns to Flint, facially disfigured, and haunted by the sights and smells of the war in which he has won (but thrown into the ocean) a medal for valour.
He is innocent of the crime that left his sister dead and wants to clear his name.
The 1919 influenza epidemic has hit Flint and he finds his mother dying and still grieving for the loss of not only her dead daughter but also her son, Quinn, whom she heard had been killed in the war, and an older brother who moved to Queensland after Sarah’s murder.
Quinn’s father and uncle are still alive and Quinn is told that they will hang him for Sarah’s murder if he ever returns.
When he does return, his mother, at death’s door, warns him of this. But she’s uncertain whether he is really there or whether, in her fevered state, she is seeing his ghost.
And that question haunts the reader throughout the story, whose elements of magical realism have us wondering if Quinn and the wild child, Sadie, about the same age as Sarah when she died, whom he befriends, and who seems to know more of his story than she should, are real, or wraiths.
Orphaned, and now living in a remote shack in the hills, waiting for her brother Thomas to come home from the war and take care of her, Sadie seems real – but is she the ghost of Sarah?
"I wanted readers to wonder whether Quinn and Sadie may have conjured each other up," Chris Womersley tells me on the phone from his Melbourne home. He’s flying up to the Northern Rivers the next day, as a guest of the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival.
"She has found out what she knows of Quinn and his sister by listening at windows, as she creeps invisibly around the town at night, stealing food.
"You can read the book imagining that everyone has dreamt everyone else up. I sort of wanted readers to believe that Sadie is not real."
It’s a neat piece of sleight-of-hand. Sadie – often a name used as a diminutive form of Sarah – stands in for Quinn’s murdered sister. Quinn is like Sadie’s longed-for brother Thomas, who may or may not one day come home from the war.
"Being too close to reality can be a bit boring," Chris says, whose day job is as a website producer with the Age newspaper, where he has also worked as a journalist.
"I was aiming for Bereft to be a gentle and poetic book, yet one in which terrible things happen."
The plot of the story follows Quinn as he hides from his uncle, now the town’s policeman, whom he believes to be the real culprit.
Sadie too is terrified that the uncle is coming after her and is going to harm her as she, too, believes he harmed Sarah; or send her to an orphanage.
The landscape of Flint, a rundown town whose glory days were in the gold rush, is a stark element in the book, especially since we frequently see it from a distance where Quinn and Sadie are hiding away.
Bereft had me mesmerised; there is magic in its pages and in the way the characters move and behave and although its theme is not a happy one, it has much to say about how we can conjure up what we long for, and how we deal with loss, grief, violence and the aftermath of a terrible bloody war.
festival appearances are on Friday, on a panel discussing Heartbreak: Lost Parents and Children at 11am, on Saturday discussing the "dark" in literature, and in the Lakehouse on Sunday for readers who would like to have a chat with him; authors’ names and the times of their sessions will be posted on a board at the Lakehouse Coffee shop.