Women & Children
University of Queensland Press, $34.99 hb, 328 pp
In conversation with the Guardian’s Paul Daley in the final days of 2021, Tony Birch addressed the recurring presence of both strong women and violent men in his work. Citing the Sydney writer Ross Gibson, Birch said he likes to think of the common themes that a writer revisits across his or her body of work as ‘reiterations’. In Birch’s oeuvre, perhaps chief among these reiterations is the impact of male violence on family and community life – from ‘The Butcher’s Wife’ in Shadowboxing (2006) to the Kane men in The White Girl (2019). His latest book, Women and Children, brings this theme into sharp relief.
The working-class, inner-city Melbourne suburbs of the 1960s that readers have come to associate with Birch’s work form the setting of his fourth novel. This time, the milieu’s Catholic culture is centred, in ‘a suburb of sectarian boundaries, with the Catholic community in no doubt that they lived under siege by Protestant leaders who dominated local government and business’, while the mostly Catholic constabulary are in cahoots with local crime bosses. The narrative follows the Cluny family: ten-year-old Joe, his older sister Ruby, mother Marion, grandfather Charlie, and Aunty Oona. When a battered Oona arrives at Marion’s doorstep in need of refuge, Joe is confronted by a threatening reality he is only just beginning to comprehend.
Filtering the violence through the innocent eyes of a child – also typical of Birch’s method – allows an exploration of what can and cannot be voiced in a community, from swearing to uncomfortable truths to dangerous admissions. Joe’s naïve attempts to understand Oona’s victimisation in the context of sin and Hell, concepts drilled in by his Catholic education, expose the fallibility of the adult world, the victim-blaming women endure, and the senselessness of violence.