2011, 264 p.
Every Friday night we settle down in front of the TV for the ABC Friday night splatter-fest. I’m usually quite nonchalant about the gore except when it depicts eyeballs (a long standing phobia), torture and violence to or about children. These things are likely to propel me out of my chair to quickly escape to the kitchen to make a ‘hot drink’, calling out “Is it over yet?” before I return.
Reading about (as distinct from watching) torture and violence about children upsets me too. I found Rocks in the Belly a difficult read, and while it’s not so much about violence to a child (mmm…maybe?), it seems that most people who have confronted the book We Need to Talk About Kevin shudder at the thought of watching the movie as well.
Blood by Tony Birch fits into this category as well. It is told from the perspective of a thirteen year old boy, who along with his younger half-sister, is falling through the welfare and schooling gaps largely through the weakness of his drunken, dissolute mother Gwen. They move between caravan parks, motels and sleeping in the car, ricocheting between country towns, cities and states as Gwen takes up with one dropkick after another. There is a brief hiatus of normality when she dumps the kids with her own father, himself a recovering alcoholic with the rigidities and stripped-down asceticism of a life dominated by poverty and AA meetings. “Is it realistic that two kids could be so invisible to the authorities like this?” I asked Mr Resident Judge who knows about such things. Ah yes, he replied. The transience opens up too many questions that are too hard to address. Should these children be taken into care? Are they being abused? (I think I’d answer ‘yes’ to both questions)
Birch sustained the voice of thirteen year old Jesse well, with short sentences and a mixture of naivete and knowing too much. You sense that Jesse is turning, no longer pretending that he doesn’t know how his mother earns her money, and becoming hardened to the wrecks of masculinity that she is drawn to. It is only his sister Rachel who anchors him. There’s a lot of dialogue in the book, and it would transfer well onto the screen. The descriptions of blasted, tawdry broken-down landscape are evocative- rather too evocative. It’s a little bit like the world of Tim Winton’s ‘The Turning’, viewed from a child’s perspective.
Jesse and Rachel see ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ at a theatre (a rather implausible scenario- surely a late night cable movie in one of the tatty motel rooms that they’d been left in would have been more likely?) Birch uses the film as a motif, and the two children draw comfort from the characters of Jem and Scout. But Gwen is certainly no Atticus, and this book has little of the redemption or sense of community in TKAM. I’m not sure whether the allusion to the movie adds much to Birch’s narrative: while it throws up a strong contrast, there is an element of riding on the coat-tails of a much more nuanced book as well. There is the theme of blood, too, from which the book draws its title: the shared blood of commitment, the blood of family ties, and the blood of violence. And yet another motif is the tarot cards that the feckless Gwen plays with, that provide as much (or little) direction as anything else in her life.
Despite the plaiting together of these motifs, there’s nothing tricksy about this book. It is straightforward and simple, with few flashbacks and a single narrative voice. I found myself wanting to know what happened, but I knew within one or two pages that it wasn’t going to end well. I found it easy to put down after each of the five sections, and was almost reluctant to pick it up again because it was painful and raw.
It is short-listed for the Miles Franklin. While I reacted at an emotional level to the book- grief for these children, anger and an element of self-righteous disgust at their mother- I’m not really sure whether the book carries the complexity sufficient for the Miles Franklin. And I cringe at the thought that it might represent ‘Australian Life in all its stages.’
My rating: 8/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library
Read because: It is short-listed for the Miles Franklin