Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 8, 2019

The White Girl, by Tony Birch

Perhaps I shouldn’t question the opinion of one of Australia’s most prominent literary critics, but it seems to me that Geordie Williamson labelling the characterisation of this novel as easy binaries in his review* misses the point…

The White Girl is a story about people who’ve grown up in a binary world, among the powerless, the poor, the uneducated and the dispossessed.  They have learned from their history and their own experiences not to trust people in positions of power – policemen, The Welfare, teachers, missionaries and bureaucrats.  The story is set in the Menzies era, but today, they could add Centrelink to that list.  And this attitude that the powerless inherit when they are young and sometimes carry with them into adulthood can translate into assumptions about the people they meet: good or evil; kindly or cruel; trustworthy or not; helpful or exploitative.   Those who are fortunate need to understand that while it isn’t always a fair assumption to make, this short-hand binary view of the world can be a form of self-protection for an underclass.  Depicting it in literature is a legitimate thing to do.

And in presenting this world the way Indigenous people too often experience it, Tony Birch isn’t lapsing into easy binaries: he’s a highly skilled, award-winning author who knows exactly what he’s doing: quite apart from using historically valid sources for his content, (which I’ve certainly come across in Indigenous memoir) Birch is not only offering a window into what can be an Indigenous view of the world, he’s also using recognisable character types just like Charles Dickens did when exposing social problems to an indifferent society.  (But Birch is a good deal more economical than Dickens, the book is only 272 pages long, and written in piercingly deft contemporary prose).

On the verge of (illegally) leaving town Odette takes her granddaughter Sissy to visit the cemetery:

After visiting with her parents Odette walked Sissy past the other graves, explaining the connection she had to family and Odette’s childhood friends.

‘You need to know all of these people,’ she said, ‘and you must remember them.’

Sissy looked around at the headstones.  ‘There’s a lot of people here, Nan.  How will I remember all of them?’

‘Through the stories,’ Odette said.  ‘I’m telling them to you, and it will be your job to remember.  It’s just like the story in the book you’re reading.  The story of the dog from Africa.  You told me about that today, and already I can remember it.  Our stories are not written in any books, which means you’ll need to keep telling them to your own family one day.’ (p.131)

Yes.

And how to do that for a wider audience, is an author’s choice.

Odette and Sissy need a permit to leave their home on the margins of a (fictional) country town called Deane.  Odette, who spent years in domestic service, is now a self-employed artist who sells her greeting cards to a retailer in the nearest town, and despite the privations of their shabby home, she’s a responsible and loving parent to the motherless Sissy.  But they need to escape the attention of an officious new policemen called Owen, who’s replacing a lazy drunk called Shea, because Sissy, for reasons readers will soon recognise, has the white skin of a father she’s never known.  What should shock readers is that Odette’s well-founded fear that the authorities will separate her from Sissy, takes place during the era of my childhood and within living memory of many others who read the book.  Odette is not her granddaughter’s guardian, and neither is Sissy’s long-vanished mother.  Because this family is Indigenous, Sissy is automatically a ward of the State.  This is occurring during the early 1960s, when the movement to grant long-overdue citizenship to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders was emerging.  The circumstances of this novel are not ancient history, or First Contact history, or Colonial history.  They are mid-20th century history, post WW2 history, and a history that was taking place at the same time that I, a child born 10,000 miles away, was granted an Australian citizenship denied to the First Nations people of this land. If you’ve ever wondered why Indigenous women are so strong, it’s because they grew up without the basic human and political rights that White Australians had, and they haven’t forgotten it.  Last year’s NAIDOC theme was ‘Because of her, we can’ and Birch’s novel is an homage to Indigenous women who’ve held families together, against the odds.

I don’t want to give Williamson’s review more air than it deserves, but his suggestion that The White Girl is aesthetically deficient while offering its readers a thrill to righteousness is offensive and patronising. Should we not feel indignant that fellow Australians and the First Peoples of this land were treated this way?  Are these stories not worthy of telling?

When Williamson writes that the characters are shunted to their allotted places like sheep being run through a drafting race,  and that the author has a responsibility to explode the assumption that we creatures are so easily tagged in the first place he implies that Birch lacks nuance.  Did he read this dialogue between Odette and a friend called Jack?

A policeman has been rude to Odette, but she feels no hostility towards him:

‘…And that policeman, I’d have been surprised if the man had treated me any differently than he did.  I don’t have the time to take blame out on a fella like him.’

‘But he was rude to you.  How’s he without blame?’

”Because they’re the ones we deal with every day of our lives.  Police.  Not the Welfare or the ones who write the rules for the government.  Think if you were the police, Jack, knowing that one day you’d be told to go into a house and take kiddies away from their family.  If you were to treat people with any decency, you couldn’t do that job.  This fella giving us a hard time, he needs to be angry at us.  Maybe even hate us.  The only way they can get by.’ (p.164)

Since when have critics been in the business of telling authors what their responsibility is?

My advice is to get hold of a copy of The White Girl and read it.  Read it for its vivid characterisation, the tension in the plot, and emotional investment in a story that tells fundamental truths.  Read it for a window on a different world.

Read it to see Odette and Sissy negotiating rush-hour crowds on the city train station: their inexperience with city life reminded me of Amy’s move to Sydney in Olga Master’s Amy’s Children.

Read it to discover how riches are relative:

…Odette had no time to hide the pile of notes sitting on the table.  Sissy had never seen so much money.  She sat down at the table, rested her chin in her hands, and stared at the bank notes.

‘Hey Nan.  You see all this?’

‘I do indeed, Sweet.  I just counted it.’

‘Who does it belong to?’

‘Well, technically me.  But seeing as we’re related, I guess it belongs to you as well,’ she smiled.

‘That’s a lot of money there, Nan.  We must be rich.’

‘Well, in the world out there,’ Odette said, nodding towards the front door, ‘it wouldn’t make us rich, although it would keep us out of harm.  But if you’re talking about a black woman with a long dead husband and a grandchild to care for, that’s a different story.  Yeah, I suppose we’re rich.’ (p. 127)

And read it to discover the story behind that bath on the front cover!

*In The Australian.  It’s paywalled so there’s no point in providing the link.

Update: 13/8/19 Geordie Williamson has supplied the full text of his review in the comments below.  I have published it because I assume he holds the copyright, but if this is not correct, I will amend the comment.

Author: Tony Birch
Title: The White Girl
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press, 2019, 272 pages
ISBN: 9780702260384
Review copy courtesy of UQP

Available direct from UQP and Fishpond: The White Girl

 


Responses

  1. Sounds like a wonderful book. Good for you for taking on a critic. I seldom pay attention to critics of movies or books but many people do take them very seriously and I feel miss out on quite a bit at times. I know they are supposed to play an important role but I disagree with them so often I ignore most reviews. Young people reviewing something have such a different perspective and older people reviewing oten come from a background so diferent than mine. I enjoyed your review of this.

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    • Thanks, Pam. I think that we who blog have the luxury of not needing to impress. I don’t mean that in an unkind way… I mean that the paid critic is expected to have a broad gasp of not just the book but also its place in the contemporary Lit scene, and they are expected to recognise stylistic techniques and innovations, and also to say something that makes their review stand out. They should also be unafraid to be critical if the book merits it, though that is increasingly rare when most reviewers are authors too. Otherwise, what is the critic being paid to do, in a world where bloggers like me can just respond to the book in a manner as simple or complex as our experiences and reading tastes allow?
      But I did feel that Williamson had got it wrong in this case.

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      • I agree with what you’re saying. If I really don’t like a book I just say I don’t think it was for me or I don’t write about it. I hate to sound off too much about a book I didn’t like as it is only how I felt. Someone else might love it.

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        • Well, *chuckle* though I try not to sound off too much when I don’t like a book, that’s not my approach because my blog is primarily a book review blog and I know from feedback that readers do like to see an honest review. It is much, much harder to write a negative review, it takes much more time and thought, but I think that readers who are going to invest time and money in books deserve it. Because my loyalty is to them and not to the author (which is not always the case when authors review each others books). And I always try to find positive reviews to offset mine, because you’re right, sometimes it’s just that the book is not the right book for me. The only time I don’t review a book is when I abandoned it… and I was quite disconcerted recently when an author whose books I love had thought I hadn’t liked her latest because I hadn’t reviewed it. (It came out in April (and I bought it then) and I reviewed it two months later in July). It had never occurred to me that an author would interpret my silence about a book as me not liking it, and this worries me because of course I can’t possibly read everything.
          There is also is a crucial difference between a book blog and a review in print, and that is that a blog is interactive. People who disagree with my opinion can say so – and they certainly have!

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  2. Well reviewed Lisa. Adding this one to my must read list.

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  3. Amazing review (and rebuttal).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Well said Lisa. There is such hostility and ignorance to the appalling history of this country. I wish there were more of your ilk willing to take them on but I suspect that will come over time and from those who have been the butt of this ignorance. It goes on my list and have a few of this author’s books to catch up with.

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    • Thanks Fay. However I wouldn’t say that GW is critiquing from hostility or ignorance, only that I think he has failed to see how the author, writing in this way, is reflecting the world that many disadvantaged people live in. Perhaps if you don’t come across it, you might not understand how rigid those attitudes can be. Almost every teacher, however, has come across parents who automatically assume that their kids hate school and are badly treated by the teachers, because that’s what happened to them. They bristle withy hostility the minute they set eyes on the hapless teacher, and when you’re young and inexperienced it can be hard to deal with, and harder still to explain to the angry parent without being patronising.
      I think that Tony Birch has done a good job of presenting this world, and I doubt if he could have presented it better any other way.

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  5. I am drafting my review of this for, hopefully, Wednesday, so will read yours, and link to it then. (You know me and reading other bloggers before I know I’m going to read a book.) I enjoyed it, btw.

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  6. Hello Book Fans,

    ‘Because of her, we can’ theme from NAIDOC is benefiting for discussion on White Girl. In reading the excerpts from the novel, Tony Birch seems to bring hard truths to issues of racism, sexism, and classism through the wisdom of Odette. The characterization, narrative conflicts, and dialogue adds illuminates the richness of the Aboriginal oral tradition. Even though this is a work of fiction, the excerpts provided by Lisa is synonymous of the life story genre in rendering a realistic depiction of black indigenous people transgressing and transforming borders and spaces where they have been historically devalued and oppressed. Life stories that capture Aboriginal female figures similar to Odette and Sissy portrayed in the novel are Daisy Corunna in My Place by Sally Morgan, Rita and Jackie in Auntie Rita by Jackie Huggins, and Ruby in Don’t Take Your Love to Town by Ruby Langford Ginibi.

    As Odette transgresses the geographic, social, and political borders, she is able to inform Sissy’s identity and place in the world through imparting indigenous way of living (traditional knowledge and values) and blackness as modes of living activism.

    Incorporating and challenging binaries within the novel are important to Birch’s novel because readers are able to gain keen insight into the social and political infrastructures- Geographical Borders, Welfare Service, Police Enforcement, Government Policies on Citizenship and Aboriginal Protection, Education- that have traditionally kept black indigenous people of Australia suppressed. Birch offers a ‘snapshot’ of how such infrastructures worked against Odette and Sissy during the 1960s, there are still traces of its impact in society.

    White Girl shows readers that the negative aspects of history can often be repeated. However, the author also shows readers that there are valuable lessons that can be learned from history. Thank you, Lisa, for another great review.

    Sonia

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    • Thank you Sonia, and thank you for your insights as well. I like what you say about ‘transgressing and transforming borders’ because that is such a key experience for older Indigenous people who were forever being denied access to all sorts of places, even in the local towns near where they lived.
      It’s bizarre when we think about the era of the Cold War when we in Australia were constantly reminded about the evil Soviets denying visas to people who wanted to leave, when at the very same time, there were Indigenous people on missions and in other institutions who — in their own country — were not allowed to leave the places they were assigned to.

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  7. […] The White Girl, see my ANZ LitLovers review […]

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  8. Oh, how interesting. I read this book over the weekend but I must remember to check my privilege when I review it because I thought it was too simplistic, and because this was the first Birch I’d read I was disappointed because I didn’t find it particularly literary. I haven’t read Geordie Williamson’s review but I suspect that maybe he’s reviewing it from that perspective — ie literary fiction when I’d probably class this as general/commercial fiction. Great to read your review Lisa because it’s made me reassess my own opinions … all of what you say makes total sense and I’ll be sure to reference it in my own post.

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    • I think you’re probably right about GW’s perspective: but *chuckle* critics need to be wary when someone of Birch’s stature writes an apparently simple book.
      I bet the some of the first reviewers of Hemingway were unimpressed. I wasn’t impressed by The Old Man and The Sea, until I realised that Hemingway was speaking the language of his nation, and revolutionising its literature into a more direct, less florid style of writing than what had gone before. I think that in his own way Birch is doing the same thing. He’s part of a flowering of Indigenous Literature in this century and by contrast with, say, Alexis Wright, who is interesting but not very accessible for general readers, he is writing Indigenous stories so that they do have a commercial appeal and will be widely read. But they still have literary values in the sense that they offer more to think about than simply ‘what happens’ and ‘engaging with the characters.’

      Like

  9. Really enjoyed your review. I’ll be adding to my TBR pile.

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  10. Your review has certainly generated interest and that is a good thing. I remember when James Kelman (Scottish writer) won the Booker award in the 90″s and created a minefield of criticism. Like his writing or not it had a huge effect on the writing culture in Scotland and has influenced many of its current successful writers.

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  11. Good on you for taking on GW, I admire your reading of the binaries which Birch uses this book to illustrate. I must say though I tend to agree with Kim’s assessment of Birch’s writing (on my limited reading of him). Still, I’ll try and read more.

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    • I discovered today via Twitter that someone else is a bit dismayed by the tone of some of his recent reviews of OzLit.

      Like

  12. […] Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked this book. […]

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  13. I’ve now posted my review and come back and read yours. I haven’t read Geordie Williamson’s review because I don’t have access to The Australian (although perhaps I could through one of my libraries!). I take his (and kimbofo’s and Bill’s) points. Birch’s writing doesn’t wow me as much as many others do, because it is a bit more simplistic, a bit more stereotypical (compared, say, with Lucashenko’s complex characters) but his heart is sincere and strong, his language good, and he’s a great story-teller. I really hope this book gets read widely. (Hmm, I didn’t mention that difference, I realise, in my post when I compared it with Lucashenko – I probably should have!)

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    • LOL Sue, the last thing I wanted to achieve was to send anyone scurrying off to read The Australian!
      Will add your review now to the Reviews page:)

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      • Haha! Except that it would be good to be able to read Geordie Williamson when he reviews books I’ve read.

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        • *That* and other reviews is the only reason that rag is in our household. #Advertisers take note I don’t read any of the rest of it, not even their glossy.

          Liked by 1 person

  14. Great commentary on this book. Your point about these outrageous human rights violations taking place in recent memory is well taken. Here in America the story of horrible abuses is somewhat similar. In this same era in America , Jim Crowe was the law of the land and African Americans were exposed to outrageous treatment by both government and society in general. Of course reflecting such reality in the form of fiction is an important way that literature is expressed.

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  15. […] of this novel as “easy binaries”, for which Lisa of ANZLitLovers took him to task in her excellent review. I haven’t read Williamson’s review (because it is behind a paywall), so I can’t […]

    Like

  16. [Posted so that all readers can see what I wrote about The White Girl}

    “Torpid beneath an inevitable sun, its dray-wide streets a study in shadow and glare, the country town of Deane — primary setting of Tony Birch’s new novel The White Girl, his fourth in a dozen years — is vividly rendered for a place that does not really exist. This is probably ­because some version of it has sprung up in so many parts of this country that only a generic instance is big enough to contain them all.

    Many readers, then, will be familiar with the mid-20th century template. An inland river town built on agriculture and mining, just starting to feel the first hints of postwar decline. Deane’s picture theatre closed two years back, about the time televisions first appeared in store windows at the regional centre, 40 miles away. Mounting diversions from the river for farming purposes have begun to affect the body of water. Its flow — and so the region’s broader ecology — has begun to stutter.

    And the old racial certitudes that drew a colour bar through town like a ruler, granting the local constabulary powers of ­association and movement over the few remaining indigenous locals and their children, much as the religious missions that raised the older generation once possessed? They are beginning to stutter, too.
    Read Next

    Q&A recap
    ‘Authoritarian? Ridiculous’
    JESSICA CORTIS

    In the cities, political and social ferment has begun to sweat beneath the crisply ironed pieties of the Menzies era. All those minorities, from European migrants to working women, whose existence has been seen by some as a threat to the established order, have begun changing society by dint of merely existing, by being woven into the fabric of a changing nation.

    Odette Brown knows nothing of this. She has barely left the town of Deane since she arrived as a child, growing up the daughter of a smart and able Aboriginal man who was later killed in an accident at the local quarry. She spent most of her days in service to white households: the once-prosperous farmers of the district, a number of them now fallen on harder times.

    All these years later Odette still lives in one of the old quarry shacks, an old woman alone aside from her granddaughter, ­Cecily, otherwise known as Sissy. The pair live a quiet, isolated existence, subsistence-level in some respects — a bath once a week in an outdoor tub; their only income arriving in the form of postal orders from the white woman who commissions gift card artworks from Odette — but richly loving and companionable.

    The missing link here is Sissy’s mother, Lila. It seems likely from the evidence readers are given that Lila was raped by a local white man when she was a teen. Sissy was the resulting issue: a white girl, almost, hence the novel’s title. Odette lost Lila to the wider world when Sissy was still a baby, with only a few letters to crumb her trail in the years since. The narrative’s opening finds the two left-behinds bound the more tightly by that essential loss.

    Birch’s vision of country Australia in this period is Bakelite-smooth. His is a quiet, steady and unerring sense of time and place. Everything that needs to be present, from the jam tins in which Odette keeps her earnings — since, as an Aboriginal woman, she is not permitted to have a bank account of her own — to the bread-and-dripping fry-up that she treats herself each Sunday morning (in mixed memory of her mission upbringing), resonates with pure ordinariness. Birch intuits that cultural memory migrates into objects over time and he curates them deftly in establishing the scene.

    But it is the spare cast of town characters that move the story forward; Henry Lamb, for example, with his ancient sweat-stained Akubra and beloved canine companion Rowdy.

    As a child Henry suffered a head injury that kicked all but some mechanical genius and a deal of fundamental kindness out of him. The butt of jokes and pranks for generations of young men in the town, he has true sympathy for Odette and does what he can to help the pair.

    Or chain-smoking, plain-speaking Millie Khan, lifelong friend of Odette, married to the descendant of Afghan cameleers. She lives in a former saddlery slowly being swallowed by a dry billabong, determined always to assert independence from a society that sees a black woman married to a Muslim as a double affront.

    Birch balances this skeleton staff of small-town decency against some moral invertebrates — such as Bill Shea, the outgoing local constable, an ineffectual drunk — and some true-blue monsters. The Kane family, pere et fils, are failed farmers whose bitterness towards the world is now directed against those, such as Odette and Henry, who remain among the few they can look down upon.

    Odette worked for the family, back in the day. She witnessed the violence Joe Kane meted out to his sons, turning one, George, into a victim and the other, Aaron, into a sadist. When Odette discovers that Aaron has begun to take an interest in Sissy, she fears a repeat of past injuries. Despite feeling the weight of the years and some ominous new pains, the doughty old woman steels herself for one more fight.

    What Odette has reckoned on is the possibility that the worst person in town may not bear the Kane surname. Newly arrived police Sergeant Lowe is cold and ruthless, curdled with pathologies. He spent the postwar years in ­Europe, ostensibly assisting with displaced persons but, the novel creepily infers, mainly using his power to manipulate and hurt the innocent.

    In other words, he is a creature perfectly designed to work for an authority that claims all indigenous children in the state as its wards. Lowe draws up a list of young people in the township who may require his “guardianship” and it is the knowledge that this man is after her granddaughter that inspires Odette’s most desperate move: to flee the town for the city, in frail hopes of finding Lila and passing Sissy back into her care.

    Birch brings us to this point with minimal fuss, but the temperature of the story soon rises. For all the author’s limpid grace as a prose writer, his calm can disguise a mean rhetorical uppercut. When Lowe discovers that the pair have absconded despite his directives to remain, he is furious. Rounding on Milly Khan on the street, he lets rip:

    “The Child, Cecily, must be returned to Deane, for her own Welfare.”

    “Welfare?” Milly replies incredulously. “Oh, you’ve looked after the welfare of our young girls for a long time now. Most of them are dead, disappeared, or were sent mad by what you did to them in the institutions. That’s not welfare, Sergeant. I think your own law would call that murder.”

    Note how starkly black and white is delineated here. It almost begs some “what ifs”. What if Sergeant Lowe spoke not as a monster — what if his cold authoritarianism came out of a sincere if misplaced belief that what he was doing was kind? What if Millie Kahn were not a statue of rectitude but a woman who had internalised some guilt or uncertainty in relation to these same “young girls”?

    It is possible, as a reader, to thrill to righteousness while feeling aesthetically short-changed: and this, for all is virtues, can sometimes be the experience when reading The White Girl. The characters are shunted to their allotted places like sheep being run through a drafting race.

    The local doctor in Deane who examines Milly is a Jewish Holocaust survivor. He’s good. The spinster daughter of local graziers encountered on the train to the city is bad. The presumably gay bureaucrat who works to furnish Odette with freedom of movement documents is good. The lecherous, form-guide brandishing owner of the cafe where Lila used to work is bad.

    It is fair to observe, of course, that a man who has suffered the horror of the death camps is likelier to stand up for outcasts elsewhere. It is also only appropriate that someone obliged to disguise their sexual orientation would have sympathy for an old woman attempting to help her daughter temporarily pass as white to save her.

    The responsibility of the author is not, however, simply to switch easy binaries, so that old Menzies-era con­victions are replaced by a rainbow parade of contem­porary merits. It is to explode the assumption that we creatures are so easily tagged in the first place. That said, to whom is the author ultimately responsible? Returning to this fiction of uncommon moral simplicity, it is worth asking whether Birch might have made certain decisions in the writing of The White Girl that had nothing to do with tweaking the palates of those belonging to what Nicolas Rothwell once called “the reading classes”.

    The sincerity and clarity of this novelmay mean some smoothing where wrinkles are required. But as a testament to the real calamities that befell generations of indigenous Australians as a direct result of white paternalism and bunk racial ideology — as a record of the pain and hurt suffered, and of the immense bravery and care shown by so many women in communities such as Deane — the novel rings clear as a bell.”

    Geordie Williamson is The Australian’s chief literary critic.

    Like

    • Fair enough Geordie. I’ve published this in full because I assume you own the copyright.

      Like

    • Thanks Geordie. You’ve said it so well. I completely take your point re the simplicity. This book is a good read, and will hopefully reach a few more people, because of that and thus spread the knowledge of indigenous experience in Australia. But I also felt that lack of “nuance” in the characters that we get in, say, Too much lip.

      Like


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