Pip Newling reviews Women and Children by Tony Birch

Women & Children

By Tony Birch


ISBN: 9780702266270

Reviewed by PIP NEWLING
Tony Birch holds a rare place in Australian literature – a male writer focused on telling domestic and working class stories. His pages shimmer with the dirt of hard work, difficult choices, and  everyday of life. The joys in reading his stories are intimate and quiet: a secretive embrace, a hand reaching to another, a warm blanket, a story, a memory shared. As simple as his narratives may appear though, the lives of Birch’s characters are rich and their journeys complex. Aboriginality and the intergenerational impacts, including violence, of the colonial project surface in all his work, exploring questions of belonging, of inescapable difference, of class, of gender and of how racism, sexism, disrespect, judgement and exclusion shape people. Women & Children though, delivers a key change to his previous stories and novels. While no different in its motifs and themes, here there is a subtle and soft joy, a quiet heartfelt hope lifting through the journeys of the two children.

The novel tells the story of Joe and Ruby Cluny, a brother and sister, their mother, Marion and aunt Oona, and their grandfather Charlie, a close-knit group. It is mid-1960s inner suburban Naarm. Joe is 11 years old and Ruby, 13 years. Birch reveals their world through the Sister Mary’s of the Catholic school that Ruby and Joe attend. The hierarchical authoritarian nature of the school flows into the streets of the surrounding suburb, a reputation for ‘hard men’, and for violence both on the street and behind closed doors.

Joe sees the world with a humane and gentle heart, a rare and precious kid, and one who is appreciated and understood intimately by both his mother and grandfather. The rest of the community are uncertain how to respond to him, his questions, his perspective, or the birthmark on his face, a legacy of his Aboriginal ancestry. At school, the nuns always call him out in class as a dreamer, a disruptor, as a low achiever and Joe believes their hellfire and brimstone stories. They have him convinced he is un-save-able. He lives with a very real fear of eternal Hell.

His sister, Ruby, is more socially mature, more attuned to the machinations of the world. She has developed a strategy. She has witnessed the pain and the hurt the nuns cause other children and has realised that if she behaves, and is an excellent student, it will be to her benefit. She understands from a young age how to get ahead without compromising her own values.

Marion works at a dry cleaners, a job she has held since she was 16 years and has brought the children up on her own. She has provided a calm and loving home for her children. Marion’s father, Charlie, has just retired from a council street sweeping job he held for over thirty years. ‘Char’, as Joe calls Charlie, lives by himself, after his wife, Ada, died 5 years ago. Without Ada to stop him, Charlie is slowly bringing his ‘collectables’ (p50), street-found riches – bottles, books, records, marbles, and boxes of other people’s lost photographs – into the house from the large hoard he maintains in the backyard.

Joe and Charlie’s relationship is one of the delights of this novel. Charlie listens to and discusses Joe’s questions; he doesn’t steer away from the open-hearted curiosity that rests deep in Joe. He openly loves the boy and Joe shines under his gaze. Ranji, a scrap metal and junk merchant and one of Charlie’s oldest friends, provides a foil for Charlie. They are both gentle respectful men of the community – Ranji with his prayers and Charlie with his belief in the good of the world. Both have stories of faith and fathers to tell each other.

Oona, Marion’s younger sister and beloved aunt of Ruby and Joe, is in an abusive relationship with Ray Lomax, an entrepreneurial electric goods salesman.

While Ruby has explained to Joe that he must never mention the bruises on other children’s bodies when they go to the local swimming pool, neither Ruby nor Joe have ever witnessed violence in their home. Birch conveys the intimacy of their shock, first for Joe when Oona turns up to Marion’s seeking help and then for Ruby, when she visits Oona unannounced. From the doorway of Oona’s flat, Ruby sees Oona’s beaten face and has an uncontrollable physical reaction. These scenes are crafted carefully and are as shocking for the reader as for the characters. Birch is clear-eyed about the impacts of violence. He knows that violence should always be shocking, and he tells it true.

Marion and Charlie are both devastated by the assaults on Oona but for different reasons. Marion is desperate and angry. At herself. At all the men in her life who choose not to assist Oona. Marion knows they see the unrelenting beatings as something private that Oona has signed up for. She feels the powerlessness, silence and shame that frequently come with family and domestic violence. Silence is a key theme in the novel. When Charlie asks Marion when Ray started to assault Oona, Marion tells him of how his daughter changed once the couple moved in together.

‘Oona never said a word to me, but I knew. Not so much the bruises. She did a reasonable job of hiding them. It was her mood.’
‘How so?’ Charlie asked. ‘I didn’t notice any change in her.’
‘Sorry to tell you this, Dad. But men never do. She went so quiet. Lost her voice.’

When Charlie says he knew nothing. Marion counters gently.

‘Maybe you did know, Dad? I think we all know. The biggest secrets on these streets are the ones that we share, but somehow find ways to ignore. And to pretend… all along I knew I was lying to myself. I think we always know, Dad.’

Charlie feels he has let Oona down, and that he is a foolish old man. He feels he needs to protect his child but is bewildered because he can’t. He also worries – remains guilty – about a time when, he tells Marion, ‘I was like him. Almost.’ (p172): a time before Marion was born when he and Ada argued, and his anger overwhelmed him.

‘In that moment,’ Charlie said, ‘I knew what my father would have done… He would have put that woman in her place and kept her there… All of them years, when I was a boy cowering in my bed, hearing him beat my mum, although I didn’t know it at the time, he’d been teaching me how to be a man.’

There are stories within stories in this novel – parables of sorts. One of Charlie’s collections is a jar of glass marbles. He tells Marion of their significance in a wonderfully tender scene:

‘Mum took one in her hand and explained to me that there was life inside. A world in miniature. All I had to do was look closely and I would see it. Each marble had its own story and its own people. She told me these stories for days.’

Charlie reflects further: ‘A simple act from my mother. It taught me such a lesson… ‘Care.’ Charlie smiled. ‘It costs nothing.’ (p199)

Early in the novel, Joe asks Charlie what he could do for work when he is older and is surprised when Charlie suggests that Joe could ‘become a writer’. (p62) Joe had no idea that being a writer could be a job and Charlie goes on to tell him that, ‘There are stories about this life … that will one day need to be told.’ (p62)

Over the course of the story, Joe learns an intimate truth. Through Charlie’s gentle guidance and his mother’s defiance – on Joe’s behalf – he comes to understand that his way of seeing and being, the way he feels the world, is a decent and humane perspective and that stories are inherently valuable. Equally, Ruby’s self-directed strategy is successful. She wins the holiday, and she realises her confidence about her own academic and social opportunity is sound. She knows what she wants, and she can see how to achieve it. She stands up to the boys at the pool, and coaxes Oona out of her flat. Her trust and confidence in herself, in her physicality and her value, grows.

Ruby and Joe may still be branded by society as different, lesser, working class, but they each come to see pathways for themselves beyond the kitchen tables, back lanes, and violent men. They are destined for other futures. For Charlie, the ‘good man’ (p174), the dilemma isn’t resolved. Is the good man the one who turns away from violence? If so, what good is he when violence turns up on the doorstep? Charlie has to re-negotiate his value with himself. Marion’s care and love are never diminished, and she comes to realise she has some control, can exert some power.

Women & Children reveals that Birch – who is also a son, father, brother, grandfather – has found hope for the future. For Birch, it is possible to break the hand-me-down pattern of violence, traits and class, but to do so requires women and children be supported. And for men to care.

Dr PIP  NEWLING reads and writes on unceded Dharawahl Country. She has published memoir and essays, including Knockabout Girl (Harper Collins, 2007).
Always was, always will be Aboriginal land.