Tony Birch, The white girl (#BookReview)

Book coverWe need more novels like Tony Birch’s The white girl and Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip. This is not to say that we don’t need all the wonderful Indigenous Australian literature I’ve read and reviewed here over the years, but some of the books, as excellent (and as beloved by me) as they are, can be more challenging to read. The white girl and Too much lip, on the other hand, are accessible, page-turning novels that have the capacity to reach a wide audience, but will they? I sure hope so, because the truths they tell are crucial for all Australians to know if we are to ever become a more mature and united nation.

In other words, it’s not only for their page-turning quality, that I paired these two novels. They have some other similarities, which I’ll briefly address before focusing on The white girl. Both novels are set in rural areas, though Birch’s novel also spends some time in the city, and both have female protagonists, though Birch’s Odette is a grandmother while Lucashenko’s Kerry is a 30-something, not-yet-settled woman. Most importantly, though, both reference long-term issues (the aforementioned truths) that have affected indigenous lives for generations, including, of course, the stolen generations, dispossession and powerlessness, past atrocities, and entrenched institutional discrimination.

However, beyond these, the novels are very different. For a start, Birch’s The white girl, being set in the 1960s, fits into the historical fiction genre whilst Lucashenko’s novel is contemporary. Moreover, Lucashenko’s is more complex and has more humour, albeit of the black sort, than Birch’s more straight drama, so let’s now get to it. Unlike Birch’s previous novel, Ghost river, which is set in Melbourne, The white girl, is set in a fictional town, Deane, and an unnamed city. This effectively universalises the story to suit any part of Australia, making it difficult to shrug off the issues as not relevant to our own places.

The basic plot of The white girl concerns Odette’s determination to save her grand-daughter, Sissy, from falling under the control of white authorities, because this novel is set at a time in Australia when indigenous people came under the Act, an act which meant they could not travel away from where they lived without permission. It also meant that the state was legal guardian of children like Sissy. Things come to a head for Odette and Sissy when a new and more officious policeman, Sergeant Lowe, comes to town to replace the alcoholic, and generally more laissez-faire Bill Shea. Odette feels the time is ripe to reunite Sissy with her mother, Lila, who had left soon after Sissy was born, and who, Odette realises some way into the story, had good reason to disappear.

Birch has set his novel at a time of transition. It’s well into the Menzies era, and indigenous people are becoming more actively engaged in fighting for their rights. Sergeant Lowe, though, is not impressed. When Odette approaches him for the necessary permissions to travel, he refuses, telling her (with the about-to-retire Shea also in his hearing):

‘The whole business of native welfare has been neglected in this district for many years. I will not allow it to continue. Your people need certainty, just as we do, as officers of the Crown. None of this is helped, of course, by those trouble-makers arguing for citizenship of behalf of your people.’

The divisive language (“your people”) and the assertion of absolute power (“I will not allow it to continue”) reflect classic colonial behaviours that ramp up the level of threat felt by Odette. This threat is exacerbated by the presence of a brutal white family in the district, the Kanes, comprising a father and two sons. Lowe is somewhat aware of their trouble-making, but only insofar as it affects another white person in the district, the gentle, brain-damaged Henry who owns the local junkyard. To some extent the book’s characters are stereotypical, but Birch’s story-telling is such that they don’t become – at least not unreasonably so – caricatures. This is partly because they are fleshed out with back-stories. It’s not particularly complex story-telling – the back stories, for example, are common ones – but the novel is believable, perhaps because they are common.

As Lucashenko does in Too much lip, Birch also references traditional culture and its ongoing role in people’s lives. Odette, like many indigenous people, listens to messages from birds (“a morning doesn’t pass without one of them speaking to me”) and to the “old people” from whom she believes her strength comes. Birch also beautifully conveys indigenous people’s resourcefulness in the face of a dominant white culture. For example, Odette’s father tells her, when she’s a young girl, why she should sing in the mission church even though they don’t believe in “their God”:

‘Because it’s best to keep them fellas happy, keep their meanness down.’

And Odette’s response, when asked for her “tribal name” by a patronising white woman who offers her piece-work employment as a card artist, provides a typical example of indigenous response to such self-interested nosiness:

It never failed to surprise Odette how white people were always going on about uplifting Aboriginal people, yet they would demand information about the old ways when it suited them. She looked over to the honey jar sitting on the bread board and read the label to herself. It sounded tribal enough. ‘We’re the Bilga people, ‘ she explained. ‘That’s my tribe. The Bilgas.’

What Birch shows, then, is that survival for indigenous people was (and mostly still is) quite a cat-and-mouse game. It involves “taking a chance with these white people”. This is a risk, Odette and her friends realise, but is often all they have. And that, I think, is the main message Birch wants to leave with his non-indigenous readers. The question is, can we rise to the challenge, and be trusted? Are we prepared to heed the truths being shared? So far, I’d say, the jury is still out.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked this book. Read for ANZLitLovers ILW2019.


Tony Birch
The white girl
St Lucia: UQP, 2019
ISBN: 9780702260384

(Review copy courtesy UQP)

Tony Birch wins the 2017 Patrick White Award

The Patrick White Award is one of Australia’s very special literary awards, and one that I posted in detail about last year when Carmel Bird was the winner. It’s special for a number of reasons. It is named for Patrick White who is, to date, Australia’s only Nobel Laureate in Literature. But, as I wrote last year, it’s particularly significant because it was established by White himself, using the proceeds of his Nobel prize money. Known for being irascible, White was also a principled and generous person. Having won two Miles Franklin Awards, among others, he stopped entering his work for awards in 1967 to provide more opportunity for other less-supported writers. His award goes to writers who have made significant contributions to Australian literature but who haven’t received the recognition they deserve.

This year’s award, as I heard on ABC Radio National when I was heading out for my patchwork group’s fortnightly cuppa, was announced at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre last night. It is special for another reason:  the award has been made to Tony Birch, making it the first time the award has been made to an indigenous Australian writer. In one sense I feel uncomfortable about labelling, because Birch has won the award on the merit of his output, but on the other hand such wins can raise awareness and provide encouragement for all those “others” who feel (and, you’d have to say, are) locked out of the mainstream.

Tony Birch, Ghost riverSo, Tony Birch. He’s a Melbourne-based writer, who has written two novels, many short stories, and poetry. His first novel, Blood, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award, and his second, Ghost River (my review) won the 2016 Victorian Premier’s award for Indigenous writing. I have also reviewed one of his short stories, “Spirit in the night” (my review), which was published in the excellent Australian Review of Fiction series.

Australian literary editor Jason Steger, writing about Birch’s win, quotes Birch on White:

“I admired the fact that as a writer in his older age he protested against the Vietnam War, that he was a great supporter of Whitlam after the Dismissal and that he had been involved with Jack Mundey’s protests and the Green Bans.”

Steger continues that this attracts Birch:

because he is “very involved” with the campaign against the Adani Carmichael coal mine in Queensland. And as a research fellow at Victoria University, his work “is essentially about the relationship between climate change and what we now call protection of country”.

The most interesting (and most memorable) parts of Ghost River werefor me, the environmental story about saving the river and Birch’s depiction of the lives of and treatment of homeless men. Michael Cathcart, in his interview with Birch on ABC’s Books and Arts Daily Program, commented that while Birch’s work features indigenous characters, his themes seem broader. Birch responded pretty much as Steger also quotes him:

I suppose my writing is broadly about class, but more essentially about valuing people who might otherwise be regarded as marginalised.

Patrick White would, I’m sure, have been proud.

Tony Birch, Ghost River (Review)

Tony Birch, Ghost river“Some people believe in religion. Well, I believe in stories.” So says Ren to his friend Sonny late in Tony Birch’s third novel Ghost River. Ren and Sonny are two young adolescent boys who live in Melbourne’s old inner-city suburb of Collingwood. It is the late 1960s, when Collingwood was a largely blue-collar neighbourhood. Ghost River is a novel about the power of stories – it’s also about the power of friendship, and the importance of community.

Last year I reviewed a short story by Tony BirchSpirit in the night – but this is my first novel by him. While I can’t, therefore, speak authoritatively on his fiction, I’ve noticed some recurring themes or ideas in these two works. Both have young men as their protagonists, both deal with disadvantage, and both set fundamentalist style Christianity against a more humanist view of the world. Interesting. Relevant here too is that Birch is an indigenous Australian writer*. Indigeneity is an overt issue in Spirit in the night, but in Ghost River it’s present, underpinning the respect for place in particular, but is by no means in your face. It is important, sometimes, to put indigenous issues front and centre, but it is equally important for it to be a given, rather than always identified, teased out, featured.

Now, the plot, because this is a book with a strong plot, a story in other words! The novel starts with Sonny moving into Ren’s neighbourhood, Sonny being around 13 years old and Ren a year younger. Sonny lives with a drunken, abusive father. He’s tough, and wiser than Ren in the ways of the street. Ren lives in a stable, loving home with his mother and stepfather. He’s a dreamer, draws birds in particular, and soaks up stories. Early in the book, Sonny rescues Ren from a bully attack at school and from then on “it became the two of them, for better and worse”. The novel chronicles their friendship, as they explore their world and face its challenges – of which, you won’t be surprised to hear, there are many more for Sonny.

Their world is dominated by the river, a place Ren loves and knows “as good as anyone and better than most”, and to which he soon introduces Sonny. The river becomes their playground – a place to which they escape and where they test their skills. It also introduces them to another community, “the river men”, a small group of homeless men led by Tex. Through these colourfully named men – Tex, Tallboy, Big Tiny, Cold Can, and of course the Doc (there’s always a Doc isn’t there!) – Ren and Sonny learn much. They learn practical survival skills, but mostly they learn about loyalty, leadership and the value of mutual support. And they hear stories,

prison stories, drinking stories, lost dog stories, and tales of their years on the road. … Other stories were sacred, recited in hushed tones and observed in silence, except for the crack and groan of the fire.

Partway through the book, a fundamentalist Christian family moves next door to Ren, comprising Reverend Beck, his wife and their daughter Della. We soon realise that Father Beck’s relationship with his daughter has a dark side (if you take my meaning).

Meanwhile, Sonny struggles at school and is eventually pushed too far by a vindictive, cruel teacher. He leaves and gets a job at the local newsagent. Brixey, the newsagent, is one of those men who can look beneath the surface to see potential and, rightly, sees potential in Sonny. It’s not long before Sonny is working hard – using his nous to work some deals, and subcontracting Ren to help out before and after school. Ren, you see, is saving for a camera so he can photograph, as well as draw, his beloved birds.

And then, completing this cast of characters, are the bad guys. There’s Foy the corrupt policeman, gangster Vincent and his henchman, and Chris the illegal SP bookmaker. Through no fault of his own, Sonny, with Ren tagging along as support, gets caught in Vincent’s net, and things become seriously nasty.

Have you noticed how much I’ve focused on the story in my discussion? It’s rare for me to spend so much time in a review on what happens, but it is hard not to here, given the importance of plot. However, there are other aspects worth talking about, particularly the river. It is the main motif – physical but also spiritual and metaphorical – that runs through the book. Unfortunately the river is threatened by plans to build a freeway. For the boys and the river men this spells disaster, the river being important to their wellbeing:

Walking home from their excursions upriver Ren would feel a little different. He couldn’t make sense of it. He knew it was a feeling he craved, but one in danger of slipping away from him. Even Sonny would be calmer. He would look up at the sky as if he was trying to unravel a mystery.

Tallboy tells the boys stories of the river, of how it had changed over time and of the “ghost river” beneath the existing one. He draws “a swirling snake” in the dirt and says:

‘This is her. And when a body dies on the river, it goes on down, down, to the ghost river. Waiting. If the spirit of the dead one is true, the ghost river, she holds the body to her heart. If the spirit is no good, or weak, she spews it back. Body come up. Simple as that.

And so it comes to pass – but you’ll have to read the book to find out more. Tallboy tells the boys, after hearing the freeway plans, “The river. Now, she needs you most of all.”

This is, essentially, a coming-of-age story. There is humour here, particularly in some of the early descriptions of the characters; the pacing is good; the dialogue believable; and the main characters are well drawn. But does it all work? It might just be me, because I’m more interested in character and ideas than plot, but I did find the plot a bit loose, primarily due to having multiple storylines. I’m not sure whether we really needed the Reverend Beck story, and I didn’t love the gangster-bookmaker-corrupt policemen story either though I suppose (says she, the comfortable middle-class white female reader) young boys can get caught up in nasty business. These seemed to me to get in the way of, dilute even, the save-the-river story. However, these plotlines certainly reinforce the idea that life is tough, and that it often requires difficult decisions. Tough, but not impossible. It’s not a spoiler, I think, to say that the novel’s resolution is cautiously hopeful.

“Books”, Ren’s stepfather Archie tells him, “can take you places”. While Ghost River didn’t work for me on all levels, it did take me to a very interesting place and time. I’m not at all sorry that I went there.

Lisa also reviewed this book, from the perspective of someone who knows Melbourne, the river and the freeway (which was, in the end, built. Of course)!

Tony Birch
Ghost river
St Lucia: UQP, 2015
ISBN: 9780702253775

(Review copy courtesy UQP)

* As for many people, his origins are mixed, Irish Catholic on his mother’s side, and Jamaican-Indigenous Australian on his father’s.

Tony Birch and Ellen van Neerven in Review of Australian Fiction 10 (4)

Review of Australian FictionI have been wanting to write about the oddly titled Review of Australian Fiction for some time. I say oddly titled because, contrary to what it might sound like, this does not contain reviews but short fiction. Established in 2012, it is published, electronically (or digitally), every two weeks. Each issue contains two stories by Australian authors: one by an established author, and the other by an emerging author, chosen by the established author. Funnily, in the issue I’m reviewing here, it’s the emerging author, Ellen van Neerven, whom I’ve read before, not the established one, Tony Birch. But, I’m so glad that Lisa’s Indigenous Literature Week has given me the opportunity to a) finally read something by Birch, and b) finally read Review of Australian Fiction issue.

Tony Birch, “Spirit in the night”

Birch’s story is told first person by a young indigenous boy, the 11-year-old Noah Sexton. He’s dirty, smelly, poorly dressed, and no-one wants to know him – except the new girl, Heather, who invites him to sit next to her. She’s “the cleanest person I’d ever seen” with “no pox rashes, bites or scars like I had”. At lunchtime, Heather offers the hungry Noah a sandwich and engages him in conversation. She asks him why he sits alone, and he gives the classic reply:

‘I sit here because I’m a Sexton.’

She doesn’t know what that means of course. When he discovers that her father is the policeman “in charge of the station”, he assumes:

Our mob was well known to the police, and I knew straightaway that as soon as her father got the story on the family name, she wouldn’t be sitting under any tree offering me a vegemite sandwich.

But, it doesn’t quite work out the way he expected. When he explains to the friendly Heather that he’s from “the only abo family left in town”, she tells him that “abo” is “a dirty word” and that “people like you, we call them half-castes. It’s more proper”. Noah disagrees, telling her that “an abo’s an abo, no matter how black or white he is … Far as whitefella is interested, the shit smells just the same.” Heather shows discomfort at this language, but Noah doesn’t care. He’s “beginning to think she was only another do-gooder”. He tells her about how his people have been treated in town, but Heather tells him her father will be different, that “he’s always fair, to both sides”. Not surprisingly, Noah is (silently) sceptical. Nonetheless, this little bit of kindness from Heather brings out a new sense of self in Noah – he doesn’t wolf down the sandwich, pretending he has a few manners, and when he gets up to go into school after that first lunch he dusts his pants off “for maybe the first time in my life”.

And so Heather spends most lunchtimes with Noah, because she’s a Christian and it’s “a sin to turn away from those in need”. Noah doesn’t like being seen as a “charity case” but is so enamoured of Heather that he’ll “put up with anything”. Understandable, given his treatment at school before.

I won’t describe any more. This is a clever story about do-gooders. Birch has astutely chosen for his protagonist a young boy on the cusp of puberty. Noah, straddling that line between childhood and adulthood, has a sense of his agency, and yet not quite the experience, nor the resources, to insist on enacting it. It’s a story about confused emotions, and about smugness and self-satisfaction. It’s about the right to dignity, and, of course, about power.

Ellen van Neerven, “Sweetest thing”

awwchallenge2015Unique, original, fresh are words I avoid when writing reviews, not only because they feel cliched but because they can be contested by anyone whose reading experience is wider than mine. So, instead, I’ll just comment on Ellen van Neerven’s capacity to surprise. I found it in her Heat and light which I reviewed earlier this year, and in “Sweetest thing”.

“Sweetest thing” is a third-person story about Serene, the child of an indigenous mother and the town’s Dutch baker. She is addicted to having her breasts suckled. It all started in puberty (“that pertinent time of a woman’s life”) with her first experience of having a man suckle her breast occuring with a male tutor when she’s nearly fourteen. He lifts up her shirt:

Beautifully out of herself, she was open and messy and dislocated like a bouquet being readied for a vase, flowers, stems, spores spread everywhere.

Nothing else happens besides this suckling, but Serene feels “bliss” and “knew then that this was what she had been programmed to need”. Slowly, as Serene schemes and positions herself to have her need met, we learn about loss. We learn, for example, about the Kedron pub, which “had refused Serene’s grandparents entry” but which is now

a haunt for women of her mother’s ilk: divorced, discarded, with loose threads of long silent and secret relationships carried under their shirts.

Under their shirts. A reference to their breasts? We learn about the gradual withdrawal of her father as he starts to focus on his “real daughter”. Serene feels anger at “the silence in her life, at his hypocrisy”.

Born into this in-between world – not quite rejected as her grandparents were, but not fully accepted either – Serene believes she deserves “comfort, worship, devotion. Trust and understanding”, but fears “hollowness”.

And so, her life progresses through school and early womanhood into mature adulthood. She has friends, she experiences casual sex, she becomes a masseuse – but still there’s the need for suckling, to have “the most basic of her needs met”. Again, I’ll leave the story here. It’s longer than Birch’s and spans a few decades of Serene’s life, which includes a meaningful relationship and a successful career.

“Sweetest thing” is an edgy story. Serene’s unusual addiction works as a rather confronting metaphor for what all humans need – love and acceptance. What I like about Van Neerven, here and in Heat and light, is that her indigenous characters are not “types”. Their indigeneity is part of who they are, and is fundamental to the challenges they confront, but her characters are also “universal” – that is, they are needy, flawed characters who muddle along, just as the rest of us do, in the lives they find themselves in. It’s powerful stuff.

ANZ_ILW2015Read for ANZLitLovers’ Indigenous Literature Week.

Tony Birch, “Spirit in the night”
Ellen van Neerven, “Sweetest thing”
in: Review of Australian Fiction 10 (4), May 2014