Books and reading

‘Women & Children’ by Tony Birch

Australian First nations author Tony Birch’s 2023 novel Women & Children was shortlisted for the 2024 Australian Book Industry Awards – Literary Fiction Book of the Year.

Set in the mid 1960’s it concerns a young boy, Joe Cluny, whose main preoccupation is his tendency to court trouble with the nuns at his Catholic school. He lives in a working class suburb with his single mum and older sister. They are a tight-knit family with the usual money problems and squabbles of families in his neighbourhood.

When his mum’s sister Oona appears at their door, Joe’s world view has to adjust to a new reality – that of violence perpetrated on women by the men in their lives, and the way doors slam when they seek help.

Joe comes to understand that there are many types of men, including Oona’s violent boyfriend and his own, mostly absent, father. There is the priest who won’t help Oona. But there is also his grandfather Charlie, and Charlie’s friend Ranji, both of whom offer a kind of companionable time-out from the troubles and mysteries of the adult world.

As Joe tries to understand the complexities of his society and the way that secrets can damage, he has to leave part of his childhood behind.

This reads like a very personal sort of novel, which the author acknowledges in his note at the end:

Women & Children is a work of fiction. It is not the story of my own family, but a story motivated by our family’s refusal to accept silence as an option in our lives.

Women & Children loc 208 of 210 (eBook)

One of the novel’s strengths is its spare use of language and the way it conjures young Joe’s world, largely seen through his eyes.

Another is the bond and strength of the female characters: Joe’s mum Marion, Oona, and his sister Ruby, all demonstrate a particular quality of spirit, hints that they will survive, perhaps even thrive, despite the obstacles lined up against them.

Children who have the kinds of troubling experiences that Joe has had, need allies. Charlie and Ranji are good examples of how adults can provide alternative experiences so crucial for kids to understand that violence does not have to be part of relationships.

This novel tells a simple story that is both very old and completely current. I wish it didn’t feel so timely, but it deals with a theme that, sadly, seems to be ever present. Uncovering the silences and secrets around violence and what it does to people is an essential step to stopping it.

Women & Children was published by UQP in 2023.

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