Women & Children

Reviewed by Wendy Tucker

by Tony Birch

Tony Birch is an author, activist and academic. This is his fourth novel. He is best known for his award-winning novel The White Girl and his short story collection Dark as Last Night.

Women & Children has just won the 2024 Age Book of the Year for Fiction and will probably win more awards. It is set in 1965 in a poor inner-city suburb of Melbourne. Our protagonist is Joe Cluny, ‘a wide-eyed, eleven-year old boy in year six’. Joe is in constant trouble with the nuns at his Catholic school and often receives brutal punishments. Joe is also in fear of the Hell that is described in a daily ritual of terror by the nuns. This is countered by his loving family – his hardworking single mother, Marion, and his high-achieving, fearless sister, Ruby. Joe is especially close to his grandfather, Charley, a retired street sweeper, and now a ‘collector of things that other people discard’.

Joe’s innocence and belief that sin equals punishment are thrown into question at the arrival on his doorstep of his severely beaten Aunty Oona. ‘Oona has done nothing wrong’, insists his mother to Joe’s questions.

 The novel now takes us into the  world of domestic violence and the secrecy that surrounds it. The brutality and danger of Oona’s situation now overshadows and threatens the whole family.

Birch’s great skill lies in the simplicity and tenderness of his writing. He writes the scenes of violence with a knowing sensitivity and compassion. His characters are complex and very human.

The Cluny family refuses to stay silent, as was the norm of the times, and takes the only way possible to help Oona escape.

This is a beautiful and honest novel that tells of the strength of family and the danger of silence.