Award-winning Aboriginal author, academic and activist, Tony Birch doesn’t pull punches with his novels.
His latest book, Women & Children, is no exception, as he tackles family violence, religion gone wrong and human decency.
The story follows Joe Cluny, trying to make sense of a world ruled by over-zealous nuns, cruelty and loss.
He has questions that can’t be answered, like why children have bruises on their bodies at the pool.
Joe’s sister Ruby tells him ‘Don’t you ask… never ask.’
When his Aunt Oona visits, she is also covered in bruises. Joe doesn’t want to look at her and thinks her injuries have something to do with suffering and sin, like Jesus on the cross.
At school, the nuns are all named Mary but have little in common with the nurturing mother.
When Joe paints his face to look like the ‘Black Sambo’ moneybox in his classroom, they push the limits of punishment to breaking point.
Indigenous heritage a theme
Joe’s Indigenous heritage is what sets him apart at school. He reminds himself that his late grandmother Ada told him about their dark skin.
‘That’s the best of you, Joey. You and me both.’
There are other tender moments. Joe spends time with his grandfather Charlie, eating breakfast and helping Charlie reorder his extensive collection of found objects.
Charlie answers all of Joe’s questions and gives him books to read.
When Joe’s Aunt Oona stays at their house, Joe sees his mother Marion and aunt dancing to their mother’s favourite song in the kitchen.
Joe sees ‘the sparkle in his mother’s eye and the smile on Oona’s face’ as they relive shared memories.
The novel explores absences, with people separated by choice, distance or loss. Joe’s father Stan is off chasing his true loves: ‘cash and arithmetic’ and Marion won’t accept money from him.
Birch delves into what people choose to say and see, or hide or ignore.
As Aunt Oona walks down the street, bystanders pretend not to see her injuries.
When Marion turns to the church and her ex-husband for help, she is met with judgement and silence.
Muslim character is the good guy
The only character at peace with his beliefs is Ranji Kahn, Charlie’s Muslim friend, who works at the scrap yard.
Marion lists Ranji as one of the few decent men she knows and he teaches Joe that prayer should not be about fearing hell, prayer should be about happiness.
Birch’s pared-back writing style suits Joe’s point of view, however the style doesn’t always help the reader make sense of harsh realities Joe faces.
An example is where Charlie briefly tells Joe why Ada didn’t know her birth date, as she was removed from her home as a baby.
One of the least explained events is Joe’s sister Ruby’s visit to a farm on a school-organised holiday.
Ruby wins the holiday for her good behaviour as a model student. Little is said about what happens when she is away, but she comes back knowing how to fight.
The novel culminates in a terrifying incident that brings all of these threads together.
While it is a satisfying ending, I was left wondering ‘what happens next for Joe?’ I wanted to spend more time with Birch’s characters and see how Joe moved on from his harsh beginnings.
This story felt more personal than Birch’s previous novels, as though he is re-exploring the world as a young boy and trying to make sense of the past. He searches out experiences worth remembering, like a favourite song or a bacon sandwich cooked by your grandfather.
Women & Children is filled with hardship, hope and bravery, as Joe’s family members do their best to protect each other. As they hold up secrets to the light, perpetrators lose their power and the family has hope for the future.
Birch is true to form as he brings sharp social observations exposing the undercurrents of life in some Australian families and exploring how to avoid repeating mistakes of the past.
Though unflinching in his style, there is enough warmth in his characters to leave you wanting more.
Tony Birch has written four novels, five short fiction collections and two poetry books. In 2022 his book ‘Dark as Last Night’ won the Christina Stead Literary Prize and the Steele Rudd Literary Award. He was the first Indigenous writers to win the Patrick White Award.
‘Women and Children’ is published by University of Queensland Press ($34.99). This reviewer’s copy is from Berkelouw Books in Eumundi.