There’s a “slow food” movement and a “slow beer” movement, and now a “slow books” movement, launched by Atlantic writer Maura Kelly, calling for readers to “Read books. As often as you can. Mostly classics.” Me, personally, I’d call for a splinter movement: slow books for authors. Write books. Seldom. Make them good. Don’t rush out a book a year, let each book take as long as it requires to reach fruition. Don’t let the fans or TV producers snap at your heels. Let’s be honest: we’re at the dawn of an era in which practically no one will make a living from writing books or journalism; we will all need a day job. There’s swathes of unedited, unpolished stuff flooding ebook sites but there’s still an appetite for books which are written with love and so deeply that they can be re-read again and again and only reveal more layers and clues. There are an awful lot of people out there who think writers shouldn’t be paid as writing is somehow “not work”. Let’s prove those people wrong.
Spearheading this trend-I-want-to-happen is the new novel by Aussie author Gillian Mears. Foal’s Bread took sixteen years to produce – about as long as it takes to produce an adult human being. It’s set in a hardscrabble and bitter rural Australia before the Second World War, where farmers and drovers become heros in high-jump competitions at local shows. If you’ve seen the image of Esther Stace leaping six and a half feet sidesaddle at the Sydney Royal Show in 1915, then you know a little of this world and you’re probably curious to know more. They’re jumping six foot, seven foot, eight foot and higher on ponies or Walers that are boosted with all the oats they can afford. The prize money is good and the riders ruthless.
Foal’s Bread is named for the hippomane, a kind of kidney stone which agglomerates in the amniotic sacs of some horses, long thought to be a good luck token. It’s the story of the Nancarrow family who are both farmers and semi-professional showjumpers working the circuit of agricultural shows in the 1930s. I won’t sketch out the plot for you here: suffice to say it’s a tough, tough read emotionally, but the language of it is shot through with a rough beauty which never sounds out of step with its protagonists’ thoughts. Mears finds the freshest use of horse imagery I’ve enjoyed since National Velvet. Lightning seen through a baby’s closed eyelids ressembles dapples on a pony. One woman could “dance the feathers off a chook”. To his wife, the dark rims round Roley Nancarrow’s irises look like “someone had cantered two perfect circles on her husband’s face.”
The Nancarrows’ drive to jump higher and higher is not just about the dollars on offer, it’s also a chance to step out of their world for a moment that feels like it extends forever and to transcend the fears that dog them on the ground:
She found herself imagining the horses being so good that the jump would just keep on going up: nine, ten, fifteen foot. Up, up into the sky, until horse and rider, Lainey and Landy, would take an almighty leap and never be seen at Wirri showground again. For one moment, she thought that the great wings either side of the high jump could be the gates of heaven. Made from hardwood from the mill instead of pearls.
It takes sixteen years to produce something this good. Revel in it.