Women & Children – book review

Acknowledgement
Women and Children cover image

Women & Children is a novel by one of my favourite authors. In it Tony Birch, a highly acclaimed Indigenous writer, academic and activist, brings us a slice of Australian life in a less affluent suburb in the 1960s. Women & Children has been awarded the 2024 Age Book of the Year (Fiction).

The plot revolves around Joe Cluny, an eleven year old boy, who lives with his mother, Marion, and his sister, Ruby. In the beginning, Joe’s major preoccupations include keeping out of trouble with the nuns at the local Catholic School. He’s one of those kids who seem unable to do what they expect. He is frequently punished.

In contrast, during the school vacation, Ruby goes on a holiday with a Catholic farming family as a reward for her good behaviour at school. Joe spends his days with his grandfather, Charlie while his mother, Marion works in a local dry-cleaning business. The close bond between Joe and newly retired sweetsweeper, Charlie, grows stronger.

Soon, however, the story darkens. Joe’s aunt, Oona, comes to their house looking for somewhere to stay. Her intimate partner has assaulted her.

Women & Children

Tony Birch, picture below, is a consummate story-teller. His apparently simple writing moves the plot of Women & Children along briskly. He sets up a trail of information that ensures readers believe they know what will happen next, then flips the plot.

Photo of author Tony Birch

His embodied language, in the words of Jeannine Ouellette, ‘crackles with sensory aliveness’. He writes from his own intuition and experience of things seen, heard, tasted, smelt and felt in the body. The reader experiences the language in the novel in the same visceral way, rather than through merely understanding it intellectually.

Birch writes directly about bodies in this novel. We learn about the scars and birthmarks they carry and the pain they experience. Connections between the characters grow through touch and tenderness.

The author develops the characters in Women & Children largely through the conversations between them. For some, we read about growing love and respect through what they say and how they act towards each other.

We also understand the family violence in part through conversations with those involved and through those who later describe it.

As noted in an article in The Conversation,

The Cluny sisters never doubt they are on their own: Marion raises two children without help from her shady ex-husband and Oona finds herself rendered a human punching-bag with no recourse. Oona holds no illusions that assistance will be forthcoming – not from neighbours, nor the church, nor society as a whole.”

Oona, Ruby and Marion appeal to others for assistance. In the end, it comes, not from those in a better position to help, but from the street-sweeper and the school’s cleaner.

Setting of Women & Children

At first I thought that Women & Children could have been set as easily in Australia in 2024, not in 1965. But these days, lay teachers staff Catholic schools, and the traditional nuns play a minor role. Punishments, hopefully, do not damage children in the way they used to.

In the 1960s, institutions like the media, church, law, education and medicine barely recognised the existence of family and domestic violence. However, the Second Wave Feminist movement began to stir during the decade.

It was not until 1974 that feminists established the first refuges in Australia – Elsie in Glebe, NSW, and Nardine in North Perth.

Over the decades between 1970 and now, institutions began to recognise the scourge of domestic violence. Laws exist to protect women and their children although attitudes change very slowly. Some protections are available.

Recommendations

I recommend Women & Children for a variety of readers such as book clubs and those who enjoy reading well-written stories. Upper school students and their teachers would find much to discuss about writing and social issues.

details of Women & Children

You can read another of my reviews at Stoneyard Devotional, by Charlotte Wood.

Please share your views about the book or anything else in the comments section below. You can also subscribe to my blog at the end of the comments block.

Maureen Helen blogger
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2 comments

    1. Thanks, Susan. Tony Birch is one of my favourite authors. He tells a good story and writes the sort of visceral prose I love to read and I’m trying to write.

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