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A gun being held pointed towards a glass tabletop.

Image: Canva.

Famously, Chekhov said that if you put a gun on stage in the first act, it really should go off in the next. This is a maxim about extraneous detail, and a maxim that Tony Birch goads to its limit in his latest book. In Women & Children, his fifth novel, there’s detail aplenty—even a gun, and the question of whether or not it will go off haunts the text.

It’s school holidays, and the weapon’s been found by eleven-year-old Joe Cluny, who’s been put in the care of his grandpa Char while his mother, Marion, is at work. Joe’s a good kid at heart but always in trouble: one of his first acts in the novel is to paint his face in imitation of a racist moneybox (‘Black Sambo’) which the nuns at school use to collect money for the ‘poor coloured children of the missions’. Though he can’t explain why, Joe feels an affinity with the moneybox and his relationship to it—and to his own unspoken heritage—is a tender undercurrent to the family’s brewing danger: One day Aunt Oona arrives on the family’s doorstep covered in the unmistakable marks of her boyfriend’s cruelty. She goes away, she comes back. The risk that her violent boyfriend will also turn up hangs over the house. So too, the risk that she’ll stay with him.

There are things that you can expect from a Birch novel: they’re almost always set in the mid-1960s in a working-class suburb of Naarm/Melbourne. The protagonists are always children with an Indigenous or multi-ethnic background—usually boys with a budding passion for books, the hint of a future storyteller about them. Often there are Catholic schools and nuns, at least in passing, and almost always alcoholics. Mothers tend to be of the single variety. There are few good men, certainly no more than you can ‘count […] on one hand with a finger to spare’.

There is violence too, handled with a certain modesty, a refusal of sensationalism: not shied away from but described in quick strokes (‘cuts and bruises’, frequently invoked to describe the harm done to Oona’s body, is a simple phrasing that recurs in Birch’s work). Cops are corrupt, and people know the law is never on their side. These preoccupations reappear in, and give shape to, Women & Children, but Birch is a masterful storyteller and the variations don’t go stale.

There is violence too, handled with a certain modesty, a refusal of sensationalism.

Here, as ever, Birch’s style is honed to a knife’s edge with which he cuts out certain kinds of detail: long and extensive descriptions have no place in a Birch story and settings are always briskly sketched. But there’s always room for a hotel on the corner, a factory or closed mill in the area, a river (the Yarra) and the promise of another life on the other side. Birch is a close chronicler of urban geographies—especially of the Melbourne suburbs he grew up in and wrote his PhD thesis on—‘inner-city suburb[s] with a reputation for hard men and their crimes’—and deeply invested in the (racialised) class politics entangled in them. He’s also a critic of corrupt institutions and displays a  keen ear for understated humour, making use of the directness and simplicity of Joe’s point of view to take particular aim at the Catholic education system (‘The diocese would not tolerate losing one of its children to the secular education system, which it regarded as nothing more than a front for Protestantism.’).

Whereas Birch’s previous novels have been propelled by action, it is the question of what might happen that drives the narrative in Women & Children. Will Oona’s boyfriend come looking for her? What happens if he does? Birch toys with Chekhov’s gun and with readers, peppering the book with details whose significance is hard to ascertain: when the gun is discovered, Char and his friend Ranji spend time getting it in working condition to try and sell it, and at the scrapyard where Joe finds it, Ranji shows the boy how the chemicals intended to strip wire for copper can strip the flesh off a rat. Meanwhile, a strange lady collects leftover milk from school and spends her time poisoning vermin and Mr Grainger (‘an elderly man who was once the only dentist in the suburb’) makes sculptures out of human teeth.

Alongside these contemporaneous anecdotes are numerous stories from the Cluny family’s past, especially Char’s, and a generous recounting of Ranji’s backstory told over a cuppa at the scrapyard. Birch also includes a sprinkling of fairytale-like stories told to Joe by his grandfather and aunt, like the one about a talking dog who won’t dob, even to protect himself. Here the message seems clear and the foreshadowing deliberate. Other stories, like the one about the girl who runs away to join the circus only to come home soon thereafter, leave the reader wondering. What all of this means and how these pieces fit is the tension driving the novel, each digression, a gun on the stage leaving readers guessing which will go off.

It is the question of what might happen that drives the narrative.

Not all the asides are successfully handled: Ranji’s Muslim father is cremated (forbidden in Islam), an oversight that might go unnoticed in a different book but is made conspicuous given readers are on the lookout for clues and red herrings, speculating what turn the novel will take. But to the extent that such moments arise, they do so in pursuit of an ideal that Birch has been following his entire writing career: to show the full range of working-class life, and of working-class people.

This goal is clearest in his short story collections, which are full of pithy and well-textured character studies. In giving minor characters so much backstory and including so many anecdotal asides in Women & Children, Birch seems to be combining the novel and short-form modes, weaving various story ideas into the fabric of a more extended narrative (in fact, his longtime readers might recognise Joe’s sister, Ruby, in Sissy from Common People). The results can be somewhat uneven in places, and at times come at the expense of developing characters like Marion and Oona (ironically the ‘women’ of the title) more fully.

Nonetheless, Birch’s investment in depicting nuanced and morally complex characters is clear. No one is straightforwardly good, and few people are wholly evil (although Oona’s boyfriend is a strong contender and shares his name with the another truly evil person in Birch’s oeuvre, this time a boyfriend in Blood). What everyone is, almost without exception, is poor, and being poor means trying to get by. Whether that means shoplifting to feed the family or taking matters into one’s own hands when the police are looking the other way, these people live at the grating edge of society and have no choice but to grit their teeth and make do.

Still, they treat one another with (often gruff) kindness and the worlds Birch creates are populated by good hearts in calloused bodies. In Ghost River, the River Men, though alcoholics who’ve abandoned their families, share everything they have with those in need. In Blood, Jon’s wanted for violent robbery but he cares for Jesse and Rachel like they’re his own children. As Birch has explored many times before, good people can do bad things and this tension is at the heart of Women & Children.

Birch seems to be combining the novel and short-form modes.

Birch is a writer of social realism, most commonly historical since his critique is aimed at a world of class relations now over half a century behind us. This is not to say that the relations Birch writes about are irrelevant—the characters he imagines, so-called Australia’s grandparents and parents, have shaped us and the world we live in and are still shaping it. This history is important, and Birch has become the country’s preeminent writer of the working class by steadfastly depicting it.

But Birch also knows firsthand the complexities of contemporary class relations. He’s a familiar face in the inner-city parklands in which he takes his runs, and has seen up-close the waves of gentrification that have transformed his home: factory workers and shop girls pushed out by government policy; students and artists moving in; the same students and artists later muscled out by yuppies and investors. He has spent his career depicting the lives of the mid-60s working class, and the decisions that shaped them. Perhaps in his next novel he’ll turn his eyes to the present—we need someone with his steady gaze to help us better see ourselves.