Women & Children
There’s a storyline running through Tony Birch’s Women & Children that I found not only relatable but had to an extent lived myself. Our loveable and scallywag young hero, Joe Cluny, becomes fascinated by a moneybox in his classroom – a Black man who is fed coins through his mouth. It’s a true connection. Joe identifies with this figure so much, transferring real emotions onto it, which ultimately causes him to get into trouble with the nuns (he paints his face to look the same and is punished severely). He also bundles it into his bag as his forbidding Catholic school breaks for the year, because he doesn’t want the money man to be alone.
When I was a kid, my family had one of these moneyboxes. Today they are – rightfully – considered racist relics, but I developed a similar fascination with ours. Given the time line of the book, I’m roughly 20 years younger than Joe, but even when I was a girl, toys of colour were hard to come by. Joe has a prominent birthmark on his face – he receives a nasty comment at the beginning of the book from a woman who claims he must have acquired it because he’s a “mongrel breed” – and there is some mystery as to his grandmother’s heritage. Perhaps because I was on the receiving end of similar comments as a child due to my skin tone, I found it easy to empathise with Joe’s curiosity about, and identification with, the moneybox.
Joe is the main vector through which Women & Children is told. His interactions with other characters and places in his inner-city working-class suburb bring the tale to life for the reader. But it’s more than a tale about a boy: what Birch has written here is a love letter to strong women who refuse to put up with the lot society has dealt them.
Joe lives with his sister – the more academically inclined Ruby – and his single mother, Marion. Early in the tale, it is made clear Marion has embraced single parenting not because of the all-too-familiar tale of the “abandoned woman” but as an active choice when she decided her husband was lacking in multiple ways and she wasn’t in love with him.
How women fight back against the misogynistic and judgemental systems they find themselves in is a constant theme throughout the story. Joe’s awe of his sister when she stands up to some young and entitled men at the pool on a hot summer’s day, for example, stems from her deciding to stand her ground when the odds are not in her favour. In more adult ways, this theme weaves its way through the stories of Marion and her sister Oona. The appearance of the outgoing and headstrong Oona on the family doorstep one night after a domestic violence incident serves as a catalyst to thrust many of the barriers they face into sharp relief.
Birch exposes in painful detail the bargains many women have been forced to make to protect their loved ones throughout history. Or the silence they are forced to endure because, time and time again, it is insinuated that it is always their fault. Unfortunately, though times have changed, we know that many of the statistics have not. However, additional factors explored in the text, such as the influence of the church or the presumed respectability of marriage, have been mostly peeled away: nowadays, obtaining a divorce or choosing to live with a partner out of wedlock are generally not frowned upon. In the mid-1960s, when Women & Children is set, it was a different story. These were wielded against women to prove their lack of worthiness and to deny them support, and are the things the key women in this story fight back against.
In the lighter moments, I found myself bonding with the grandfather and surrogate father figure, Charlie, or “Char”. Charlie’s devotion to his daughters and his late wife is steadfast throughout the story, and his caring and gentle nature is joyful. But it is his interactions with his grandson, and his friend and “business partner”, Ranji Khan, that really made me like him. Whether it is Charlie and Ranji outdoing each other with their possibly tall tales for young Joe’s impressionable ears, or Charlie instilling a love of reading in his grandson while impressing upon him how it changed his life as a man with not much education, or working through the turmoil of choosing between a toxic form of action or drawing on strength from friendship and community, this brand of masculinity is not often seen in books – particularly Australian novels set in that time.
In Women & Children, Birch has created a story that is inherently relatable, with layered characters and streets my own mother would have walked down in her youth. But it’s his exploration of the strength of women, and how a world that marginalises women is disastrous for everyone, that leaves the reader with much to contemplate after finishing the story.
UQP, 328pp, $34.99 (hardback)
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 11, 2023 as "Women & Children".
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