Blood, a debut novel by Tony Birch, has been shortlisted for the 2012 Miles Franklin Award.
In the blurb at Fishpond, it’s described as ‘an epic moral fable, a gothic odyssey set on the back roads of Australia’. It’s the story of two kids, thirteen-year-old Jesse and his little sister Rachel, aged eight. They have the kind of mother they’d be better off without. Her name is Gwen.
That’s not me, sitting in judgement. It’s Jesse, who narrates this story, who tells us so. Gwen’s life is a disaster, and her adolescent son has finally given up on her. She’s been on drugs and drink throughout his whole life, there’s been a succession of men but the relationships never last, and she makes endless promises that she never keeps. She has occasional dead-end jobs but they never have any money, and he’s learned not only not to have any qualms about skipping out on the rent, but also how to steal petrol, food from supermarkets and anything else they need.
There’s no affection in these kids’ lives. They have no friends their own ages, no extended family to offer support except a pallid grandfather. They have no amusements except obsolete TVs scrounged from nature-strips: Gwen doesn’t even do Christmas. She’s always angry, and constantly bawls commands at the kids. Jesse has learned the hard way that for now, he has to just keep quiet, and do what she says.
What Jesse craves is a quiet, routine sort of life. But apart from a transient episode when Gwen takes up with an ex-con called Jon, and a sojourn at his grandfather’s, he doesn’t get that. This is a bleak life indeed.
(The alternative view of masculinity offered by Jon and the possibility of an ex-con as model parent is refreshing. Who knew that blokes learned to bake cakes in the nick?)
So as far as Jesse is concerned, the only person Gwen cares about is herself. The bond that matters to him is the one he has with Rachel, and he’s been taking responsibility for her since she was born. In the chaos of their lives, school is only ever intermittent, and welfare authorities have little chance of catching up with them because they’re always on the move. On the one occasion when they did, he caused awful trouble for a foster-carer because they separated him from his sister. He is determined that they will always be together.
Trouble looms as Gwen loses her looks, and the men that she attracts are violent, ruthless criminals. At the same time, Jesse becomes old enough to imagine a different future for himself, but not old enough to realise the risks involved in antagonising the kind of men his feckless mother has brought into their lives.
Birch uses allusions from To Kill A Mockingbird to conjure scenes from the B/W film: Rachel is inspired to have courage like Scout’s; Jesse quickly suppresses his longing for a father like Atticus. But even for a moral fable, I found this book too black-and-white in conception, like many YA novels. The perspective is adolescent but there is no coming-of-age nor redemption. While the bad guys are stock characters who deserve what they get without a backward glance, Jesse’s view of his mother is hyper-critical: she has no redeeming features and there is only blame for the hardships that – in the overlong lead-up to the road journey - are laid on with a trowel.
There is no psychological insight: the boy moves on only from grim resignation to mad heroic impulse and dogged determination to survive the odyssey that ensues. Jesse’s belief in his ability to outwit everyone else is sadly only too similar to his mother’s immature self-delusions. He even mimics Gwen’s demands for unquestioning obedience when he invokes Rachel’s blind trust, telling her that she must always do what he says for their survival. The plot seems to conspire in Jesse’s view of himself as a saviour who must do whatever it takes, with Rachel trailing after him. Two events which masquerade as heroic exploits stretch credibility: I can hear the Year 9 English classes discussing the question of justification already…
While some readers may find that the simple prose suits the age of the narrator and the bleak tone of the book, I found it lacking in the literary qualities that I look for in Miles Franklin nominations. This passage comes from a page selected at random: two savage dogs are circling their car.
The dogs went quiet all of a sudden. I looked across the yard and saw an old man hobbling towards the car. He was dragging a leather whip behind him. His skin was black and his bare arms looked like charcoaled tree branches.
He stopped and spoke quietly to the dogs. ‘Get off, you fellas, get off.’
When they didn’t move he threw his arm back and cracked the whip across the back of the dog at Gwen’s window. It jumped in the air and slammed itself against the car door. Rachel screamed and the dog circling the car took off from where it had come from, yelping in pain, like it had been whipped too.
The old man gave the second dog a couple more cracks before it gave up. It dropped down from the car, looked at the old man and opened the side of its mouth and snarled. Yellow froth dripped from its cracked tongue. The old man raised the whip in the air to be sure the dog got a good look at it.
‘You get off, old fella. Or you can have some more of this, here. You don’t wanna try me, boy.’ (p124)
However, Tony Birch’s poetry and other writing excerpted in the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature is stunning, with striking imagery and a powerful emotional punch. Here’s an example, which shows that Birch’s plain style in Blood is an authorial choice.
Beruk moves quietly through the canyons of the city – all is stone still now. He passes the winking lights – imitating life. He listens for machines grinding to failure. Beruk obseves his reflection in the flaws of glass, now inhabited by the petrified few.
(‘The True History of Beruk’, in The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature, edited by Anita Heiss and Peter Minter, Allen & Unwin, 2008)
Jo Case reviewed Blood for Readings and found that it ‘delivers edge-of-your-seat suspense and engrossing characterisation in equal measures’, while Conrad Walters at the SMH thought that Birch ‘deftly balances the naiveté of youth and insights forged through hardship’. And obviously the Miles Franklin judges loved it!
Author: Tony Birch
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2011
Source: Review copy courtesy of UQP