All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Blood by Tony Birch

on July 20, 2020

Tony Birch
University of Queensland Press
2012, 264p
Personal purchased copy

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

From the moment he saw Rachel wrapped in a blanket at the hospital, Jesse knew that he’d be the one to look after his little sister. When their mother’s appetite for destruction leads the little family into the arms of Ray Crow, Jesse sees the brooding violence and knows that, this time, the trouble is real.

But Jesse is just a kid and even as he tries to save his sister, he makes a fatal error that exposes them to the kind of danger from which he has sworn to protect them. As their world is torn to pieces, the children learn that when you are lost and alone, the only thing you can trust is what’s in your blood.

Young Jesse is only 5 when his sister Rachel is born. Before her, it was just him and his mother Gwen, living from hand to mouth, moving from one place to another. When Rachel arrives, Jesse, although young, already knows that he will be responsible for much of her care. Gwen……Gwen isn’t good at things like nurturing and taking care of people. She’s always on the lookout for the next place to go, someone she knows that they might be able to crash with for a while…the next man that might take care of them. Unfortunately, Gwen’s taste in men often runs to the type that are too free with their fists.

Sometimes, things work out. A man Gwen brings home seems scary at first, with his prison tattoos and anger when he can’t get a job. But he treats Jesse and Rachel with kindness, cooking them meals, walking Rachel to school, teaching Jesse about things. For the first time in his life, Jesse feels like he has a father-figure (Jesse is half-Aboriginal through his father, although his mother makes no secret of the fact that’s a no good thing, just as his father was no good and from a young age he learns about slurs toward his heritage) as he and Rachel bond with the man. But it doesn’t last – it never does. And one morning he’s gone and Gwen is forcing them to pack a suitcase again, moving on. And then there’s Pop, Gwen’s father, who takes Jesse and Rachel in when Gwen is out of options. He’s a man of few words, who has faced demons and won, and been estranged from his daughter for a long time. Jesse and Rachel worm their way into Pop’s heart and he to theirs but all too soon Gwen is back, demanding her kids, saying it’s time to go. But when she drives them to Adelaide after yet another thing goes wrong, it puts them in the path of Ray Crow…..and this time, the danger is real.

The book opens with Jesse separated from his sister Rachel, at a police station but gives no indication of why he is there. It establishes the bond he has with his younger sister and his desire to protect her at all costs by saying nothing. It then takes you back in time, firstly to before Rachel and then the arrival of Rachel and then how their lives evolve as the two grow up. At the time of the police station, Jesse is around 13 and Rachel about 8 and the journey from Adelaide, fleeing their mother’s latest violent boyfriend, to the police station is long, traumatic and dangerous every step of the way. Despite his youth, Jesse is incredibly resourceful and he’s very protective of his younger sister. He has a goal of keeping her safe (in many ways, including from Ray when they were still in Adelaide) but he’s also just a kid and sometimes things go wrong and he has to make a new plan.

From their birth, Jesse and Rachel had very few times of stability in their lives. Briefly, when the ex-prisoner moved in, provided a father figure and also the time she sent them to her father. The way in which the two children bonded with their Pop, who was a man of few words and not seemingly at ease with the caretaker role thrust upon him, was incredibly tender and well done. It’s subtle and it goes both ways. Pop becomes attached to the children too and although he seems to have little, he does things to make occasions special for them, to the best of his ability. He sees them fed and clothed and cared for in ways that they have not experienced and it’s almost like they have a home for the first time in their lives. Perhaps the kindest thing Gwen could’ve done for them was leave them there but she’s back all too soon, dragging them away, hurting everyone and not seeing what she’s doing. She is their mother but she’s also incapable of making decisions that put them first or take them into consideration at all. She bounces from one man to the next, most of them trouble and the time with Pop gives a bit of an indication how and why she ended up in that life and that once, long ago, she’d been a very different person.

This is extreme poverty and desperation, leading to neglect and danger. Gwen makes a lot of her choices based on the fact that she doesn’t have a lot of choice but she does also seem to sabotage some of the few good scenarios she finds herself in, so it does make me wonder how much she would choose a stable life, should one be an option. The children have had little in the way of schooling which she’s incredibly unconcerned about and she seems to always fall back on the journey of moving from one place to another and rarely settling down. She’s clinging to a her that no longer exists: a younger, prettier, thinner version before drinking, babies, an unsustainable lifestyle and bad choices took their toll. And her children are paying the price.

This was a powerful and gripping read and I’d definitely like to try some of Tony Birch’s other books.


Book #130 of 2020

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