The Beloved by Annah Faulkner

I read ‘Last Day in the Dynamite Factory’ earlier this month, and as a consequence was very keen to read Ms Faulkner’s first novel.  I’m glad I did.

The Beloved by Annah Faulkner

‘It came one morning with the milk, and it seemed – at first – almost as innocent.’

Roberta ‘Bertie’ Lightfoot is six when she contracts polio.  Bertie recovers, but one leg is withered and she has to wear a special boot, which she hates.  Although Bertie is a talented and perceptive artist, her passion for art is not part of her mother’s plan for her future.  Bertie’s mother has high expectations for her, and sees Bertie’s interest in art as a waste of time, of misdirected effort.

In 1955, Bertie, her brother Tim and her parents move to Port Moresby where her father has a job.  Bertie’s mother also finds a job, as a photographer.   Bertie makes a friend, and life seems to be settling for her and her family.  But then Bertie and her mother travel to Canada to see her grandparents.  When they return, after some months, things have changed.  Bertie continues to draw, and has art lessons in secret.  But Bertie is not the only member of the family with secrets.  Can Bertie’s relationship with her mother survive?  Can her mother accept Bertie’s passion for art?  And can Bertie’s mother come to terms with the losses in her own life?

I read this novel immediately after reading Ms Faulkner’s later novel, ‘Last Day in the Dynamite Factory’.  Two characters (Bertie Lightfoot and Chris Bright) appear in both novels, and I was curious to follow them both from one novel to the other.  While the stories are quite different, and it is not necessary to read one in order to appreciate the other, I am glad I did.  Chris’s part in this novel is comparatively minor, which initially disappointed me.  But Bertie?  Bertie is magnificent.  How many of us, who felt different for whatever reason, can relate to Bertie?  And the relationship dynamics are so well presented, within a family stressed by ambitions and relationships past and present.  Port Moresby in the 1950s and early 1960s was an administrative centre and port, a frontier town, when the territory of Papua and New Guinea was administered by Australia.

‘The Beloved’ was Ms Faulkner’s debut novel, and was the 2011 winner Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards — Best Manuscript of an Emerging Queensland Author.  ‘The Beloved’ won the 2013 Nita Kibble Literary Award, and was shortlisted for the 2013 Miles Franklin Literary Award.  It is a thought provoking novel, and I’m very glad I read it.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith