The White Girl
University of Queensland Press, $29.95 pb, 272 pp, 9780702260384
If the number of reviews and interviews are indicators of a new book’s impact, Tony Birch’s novel The White Girl has landed like a B-format sized asteroid. Birch’s publisher estimates a substantial number of reviews and other features since publication. I’ve consulted none of them. Usually I can’t help myself from immersing myself in any and all artefacts of literary reception. With The White Girl I wanted to stay with the work, stay with Odette Brown and with Sissy, stay on the fringes of the fictional town called Deane, stay on that train to the big smoke – stay with The White Girl and reflect on where it took me.
Set in early 1960s country Australia, The White Girl opens with Odette Brown rising with the sun, ‘as she did each morning’. One might call Odette a matriarch, but I simply want to refer to her as a woman I am familiar with. Odette (I am resisting the urge to refer to her as ‘Aunt’) is an Everywoman, an every Koori, Murri, Nyoongar, Nunga, Goorie, and every other kind of us-woman. Odette thinks deeply and does what needs to be done. She loves her family, those living and the ones who have already passed. Getting to know the deceased members of Odette’s family reminds me of my knowing since childhood my own maternal great-grandmother, although she passed away two months before I was born.