Recently read: Foal’s Bread, White Noise + The Swimming-Pool Library

Foal’s Bread, Gillian Mears, Allen & Unwin, 9781742376295 (paperback, ebook)

A slow read – but think ‘slow’ as in that positive movement of slow food, slow travel – picked up each morning over breakfast. Set in Northern NSW, quite near where I grew up (and author Gillian Mears grew up) in the interwar and WWII period, it’s about a couple of young horse high-jumpers who come together and make a family. They have big dreams of shows and success, but lightning strikes (literally and metaphorically). In fact, they are struck down again and again. The earliest scene, where Noah, a 13-year-old girl, gives birth to her uncle’s child (alone, in the river), sets the tone. It’s sad, it’s highly dramatic, but there is also warmth. Noah was, complexly, very fond of the uncle who ‘took advantage’.

Further relationships are given depth through different kinds of desires, loyalties, and physical limitations. The novel is full of small symbols and tokens: mainly the foal’s bread, and I won’t ruin for you what that is; animals, and heart shapes. Symbols to seek when in need, to look to, to hold, to share and pass on. The characters live frustrated lives but make grand gestures. Noah is my favourite character: full of fire, toughness, cruelty and kindness. Her secret losses and her repressed desires eat her up. I also enjoyed the descriptions of life on the farm: all the types of weather, the birds and trees, gingernut biscuits (family traditions) and hidden money and grog. Every event is significant to all of their lives, from a storm to the local dance. And the way it moves through to the next generation is handled so well – especially the pull between mother and daughter. I do recommend taking Foal’s Bread in bit by bit, unless you’re in the mood to be devastated and overwhelmed (which, sometimes, we are).

I’m counting this mini-review toward my tally in the Australian Women Writers Reading + Reviewing Challenge.

White Noise, Don DeLillo, Picador, 9780330291088 (paperback, first published 1984)

One of the best books I’ve read and one that really struck a chord. Death, distraction and comfort. Infiltration (of danger, of advertising). Wanting to embrace something and it ends up being the line at the supermarket, because everything else is false. Wanting to learn and know small, graspable things like how to sit and stand, how to eat properly, because so much cannot be grasped.

I read this quote by Boyd on Nabokov the other day: some readers ‘miss altogether his positive irony, his attempt to encompass all the negatives, as he suspects life itself does, and reverse their direction in the mirror of death’ (p. 5). I thought this about DeLillo, too (with this book).

The Swimming-Pool Library, Alan Hollinghurst, Vintage, 9780099268130 (paperback, ebook, first published 1988)

The first thing I noticed about this book was how the protagonist, William Beckwith, seemed to view the world through his penis. It’s actually fascinating. You never know whether all the men in the showers at the ‘Corry’ (a gym, in London) are getting hard-ons or whether that’s just the way he wants it to be. His gaydar is finely tuned, he picks up men everywhere and seems to treat them with equal parts coldness and rapture. William’s affections fade in and out like his erections. He saves an old man, Lord Nantwich, from dying at the urinals one day and then becomes acquainted with him. Nantwich even asks the privileged, drifting youth if he might write his biography. They find they have similarities: wealth, a taste for black men, a somewhat cruel nature… They are both ambiguous in many ways, and ambiguity creates much of the intrigue in this novel. The reader never quite knows when a character is being genuine. There are glorious, descriptive passages of gay crushes, loves and hardcore sexual encounters. There’s a whole passage carefully describing what each of the different men’s penises resemble, in the showers at the Corry. Here’s a sample:

‘Here was the long, listless penis, there the curt, athletic knob or innocent rosebud of someone scarcely out of school. Carlos’s Amerindian giant swung alongside the compact form of a Chinese youth whose tiny brown willy was almost concealed in his wet pubic hair, like an exotic mushroom in a dish of seaweed.’

Women are absent, but that’s because they are peripheral to William’s radar, and Lord Nantwich’s, too. There are sometimes threats to William’s lifestyle (acts and hints of intolerance and violence) but mainly it is a life of decadent pleasure – in his body, his imagination and in the air. One violent act seems to be there just to acknowledge the existence of intolerance, though generally William’s gay world permeates the everyday one, on multiple levels. And we have a historical view, too, through Lord Nantwich and his diaries. No one is particularly likeable in this novel but they are intriguing. The language itself is seductive and delicious.

15 thoughts on “Recently read: Foal’s Bread, White Noise + The Swimming-Pool Library

  1. I read White Noise a few years ago and really enjoyed it. DeLilo’s style is extremely readable without becoming simplistic or trite. He shows very well the fear of contingency and chance and absurdity, and how this can fester into paranoia. But unlike the characters in a Pinter or a Kafka or a Camus, his characters can still laugh at themselves and each other, and I remember wishing I could share their domestic situation (but not the underlying panic.) There’s a line towards the end of the book that had me roaring with laughter, where the narrator is imagining his wife naked but for a pair of pink leg-warmers, “looking like a cheerleader at an orgy.” And I was genuinely relieved by the ending, because it looked for a page or so that it was all going to end horribly.

    • Hi Glen, thanks for your insightful and articulate comment. I found, when I went to write about <i.White Noise, I just had a series of words and impressions. I think you’re spot on about the fact that the characters can laugh at themselves. That does seem to separate it from other literature with ‘existential’-type themes. Have you read much of his other work? I’ve only read Point Omega. I mainly remember the sparseness of it, and the mood. I’d like to read Underworld at some stage, and the new book of stories that’s just come out.

      • No, I haven’t read any of his other work. This one was a set text for a book club I used to belong to. But I was so into it that I got through it over the course of an Easter long weekend.
        The characters had a loveable, smart-alec ridiculousness to them. For instance, one of the daughters waxes lyrical at one point about the sun’s “corolla”, instead of “corona” (does anyone else remember Toyota Coronas???) I found myself wishing I had a pair of good natured, p*ss-taking sisters like those two girls.
        And yes, I’m quite drawn to existential themes in literature.

  2. Gillian Mears is such a fantastic writer! I found her earlier books were similarly sometimes painful to read, though I loved them too. I recently read her essay ‘Fairy Death’ in Best Australian Essays and found it incredibly moving. Just discovered your blog, Angela, and happy that I did.

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  4. Beautifully succinct review of Foal’s bread Angela. I like your mention of the symbols too. One of the motifs I loved in the book is the Jacaranda tree. (It’s featured in a few books I’ve read lately – reading synchronicities!). There’s so much to write about in this glorious book. I do hope she gets shortlisted for some big awards. (I won’t say win, yet, as I’m not really up on what this year’s competition will be.)

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  7. The first 2 books are already on my ‘to read’ list (though now I’m quite worried about that first one!). Interested that FOAL’S BREAD is on the Miles Franklin long list.

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  10. Just read this post, thanks, Angela. I like your impressionistic sketch of Foal’s Bread. Haven’t read any de Lillo, but will look out for him. Think I’ll give the swimming pool a miss though. I’ve given up knowing men who are led by their penises, even in literature!

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