Books

Tony Birch
The White Girl

In critical appraisals of Tony Birch’s fiction, certain adjectives appear again and again. Of the prose: “spare”, “concise”, “uncluttered”; the characters “vivid” and rendered with “compassion”. Perhaps it is true that good novels, like Tolstoy’s happy families, are all alike, yet it could just as easily be true that critics, by and large, tend to repeat themselves. Or perhaps, as I suspect, there’s an element to Birch’s writing that makes him both readable and difficult to define.

Birch, both as a storyteller and as a prose stylist, is uncommonly subtle, and the considerable complexity of his writing isn’t always immediately apparent. His first novel, Blood, is an excellent example of this: the pacing is taut and balanced, the prose unassuming, and the narrative straightforward. You almost don’t notice the layered ambiguities of the text; even more remarkably, on closer reading those ambiguities seem so effortless they disappear. In Blood – a novel about people trying to find a way out of brutal systems and predicaments – the central character, 13-year-old Jesse, meets Limbo, named for spending more time in remand than anyone else in the history of South Australia’s prison system. When he hears that Limbo got out, Jesse tells him, “That’s not right, calling you Limbo. It should be Purgatory, your name.”

The White Girl, Birch’s third novel, sees him return to a topic he also explored in “Sissy”, a short story from his collection Common People – the central characters even share the same name. The two works reckon with the legacy of forced removals, adoptions and displacement of Aboriginal people by colonial authorities, “protectors” and missions – in particular, the removal of children of lighter complexion.

The White Girl begins at some time in the 1960s in Deane, a fictitious country town located somewhere north of Canberra and south of Brisbane. With the country striving to distinguish itself through the cruelty of its settler-colonial people towards Indigenous people, the ’60s are even more callous than our current era: Aboriginal people are forced to live meagrely on the outskirts of Deane, past a dry riverbed, with their free movement restricted and their children under constant threat of state-sanctioned kidnap.

We are introduced to Odette Brown and her granddaughter, Sissy. Odette is fiercely protective of Sissy, knowing all too well that at any moment her granddaughter could be taken from the only loving adult she has known. At first, it seems that their lives have attained an uneasy equilibrium, until the arrival of a police sergeant named Lowe, who firmly believes that a fair-skinned child such as Sissy has no place in an Aboriginal family. Understanding the danger she and her granddaughter are in, especially with her health beginning to fail her, Odette concocts a scheme to escape the clutches of Lowe.

The novel comes alive in these moments. Odette cleverly disguises herself and Sissy and manages to secure travel passes, allowing them to board a train. They journey to an unnamed city, presumably Sydney, and Odette renews her attempts to locate her missing daughter, Sissy’s mother. The scenes between Odette and Sissy are rendered with considerable tenderness, yet there is a sense of enormous tragedy to their relationship: Odette, who loves her granddaughter so much, cannot help but prepare her for the harsh realities of life. When Sissy, distracted by the tall city buildings, is knocked to the ground by a rushing pedestrian, Odette helps her up and says: “Can I make a suggestion? Keep your eyes on what you can see in front of you and not what’s in the sky.” Odette, ever full of practical advice, fears for Sissy, whose boldness and carefree innocence remain intact throughout the novel despite the impending danger.

The White Girl is shot through with an at-times-sickening familiarity. As a writer, Birch has always relied on the credibility of his characters and settings to propel his stories; here, the deliberate ambiguities in place and time create a sense that this story is one that has played out thousands and thousands of times, across the entire breadth of this country, for decades.

During her journeys, first to the neighbouring town to seek medical treatment, and later to the city with her granddaughter, Odette encounters others who, like her, have been scarred by the vast system of bureaucratic cruelties inflicted upon Indigenous families. She finds mothers who have gone mad with grief after their children were taken: some have never stopped looking, while others have given up fighting altogether. The details of these stories are familiar to any student of this nation’s past.

Birch’s stories have always exuded a warm, lived-in feel, even in their bleakest moments, and in The White Girl his style reaches an apotheosis: there is a profound and rare clarity in the prose, and the pacing is excellent. Indeed, I haven’t read a novel that moves through time as elegantly as The White Girl in quite a while. In a Guardian interview, Birch mentions that he wrote the first draft in about eight weeks, a feat that might explain the narrative’s sustained cohesiveness.

When asked on the podcast The Garret what his intentions were with The White Girl, Birch responded:

I really hope that Aboriginal people who read this book will recognise something of their family experience and get value out of it. And I think a lot of Aboriginal people know that these stories need to be told and they still haven’t been told. The book is an attempt, even though it’s working explicitly as fiction, to give some sense of this history, not only for Aboriginal people but for non-Aboriginal people as well.

The White Girl is about our shared history, one that has long been ignored and at times deliberately erased. In a time when our national literature so often seems unequal to the task of reckoning with a world seemingly on the brink of fire, it is a rare thing for a novel to tell a gripping story while also engaging more broadly with the continuing dispossession and violence that are our uneasy inheritance.

Khalid Warsame

UQP, 272pp, $29.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 22, 2019 as "Tony Birch, The White Girl". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Khalid Warsame