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20 Books of Summer #3: Blood by Tony Birch – Indigenous Literature Week

Blood by Tony Birch (2011) French title : Du même sang. Translated by Antoine Bargel.

Tony Birch is an Australian Indigenous writer. His debut novel Blood is my third 20 Books of Summer billet and my contribution to Lisa’s Indigenous Literature Week. Lisa hosts this event to help readers discover Indigenous Literature, mostly from Australia and New Zealand. If you want to know more, here’s her post that describes the event and gives book recommendations.

In Blood, Tony Birch introduces us to Jesse and Rachel who live with their useless mother, Gwen. She works where and when she can and she’s constantly attracted to bad boys with criminal streaks and has no motherly instinct.

Jesse (13) and Rachel (8) almost never go to school. They move too much, living in abandoned farmhouses, in trailers, in shitty flats. Their mother leaves them on their own and the telly is their baby-sitter. They watch a lot of crime shows and films they’re too young to see. Gwen shows no real affection to her children. She’s always on the run.

The children know nothing about a normal life and a normal childhood. They stick together and their deepest fear is to be picked up by social services and to be sent to different foster homes. Jesse feels responsible for his sister, they made a blood pact to always help each other. Gwen is the major source of their issues.

We’d always been on the move, shifting from one place to another, usually because she’d done the dirty on someone, or she was chasing some fella she’d fallen for. And when Gwen fell for a bloke, she had to have him.

Once she shacks up with Jon, an ex-convict. Due to his past, he can’t find a job, stays home and starts to take care of the house and the kids. He’s determined to stay on the wagon and to turn his back to his former life. He sticks to it, cooks, cleans up the house, takes the children to school. They start to have a routine but this life becomes too homely for Gwen, Jon lost his edge and she kicks him out. The children lose a caring adult and are back to square one.

Gwen leaves them behind at her estranged father’s house. Jesse and Rachel have never met him and the improbable trio finds their way together. Stability is around the corner when Gwen shows up again and takes the kids away. Now she’s with Ray and this one is a real criminal. Jesse quickly realises that this man is very dangerous. He starts thinking about running away with Rachel and his hatred for his mother grows.

We know from the beginning that something terrible has happened. Jesse, the only narrator in the book, rings true. He takes us through his life up to the present. The story is suspenseful, breathtaking and heartbreaking. I was hooked from the first pages, mentally cheering the children, dreading for their future and cursing Gwen’s idiotic and shameful behaviour. It’s bleak but Jesse never gives up.

It sounds like American Darling by Gabriel Tallent. I rooted for Jesse and Rachel like I did for Tallent’s Turtle. I wish that Turtle and Jesse could meet, bond and share their mad survival skills. Both Tallent and Birch are gifted storytellers, embarking us on a journey in these kids’ lives. Blood isn’t as emotionally scarring as American Darling but it still made me angry on behalf of Jesse and Rachel.

Blood is on this thin line between literary fiction and crime fiction. (Gabriel Tallent was invited to Quais du Polar, btw.) We see children put on the path of violent criminals by their worthless mother. We wonder where social services are and how children can live under the radar like this. No institution worries when they don’t come back to school. No social worker ever shows up at their house. The world of adults constantly fails them, up to the point that Jesse and Rachel take matters in their own hands.

Blood is a compelling read that will stay with me and I highly recommend it. Many thanks to Lisa for reviewing books by Tony Birch. I knew of him when I visited the bookshop Readings in Melbourne and Blood was among the books I brought back to France.

 

  1. Vishy
    July 7, 2020 at 9:29 am

    Wonderful review, Emma! Looks like a heartbreaking book. I haven’t heard of Tony Birch before. Thanks for introducing me to this new-to-me author. I remember Tabitha Suzuma’s Forbidden had a similar mother character. I loved your comparison of Birch’s book to Gabriel Tallent’s. I need to read Tallent’s book. Thanks for sharing your thoughts 🙂

    Like

    • July 8, 2020 at 8:58 pm

      It’s a heartbreaking book but with a teenage protagonist who’s a fighter and has good common sense.

      American Darling is really a stunning book too.

      Like

  2. July 7, 2020 at 10:34 am

    Im so pleased that you found this at Melbourne’s favourite bookstore! Thanks for your contribution to #IndigLitWeek, I’ll add it to the Reviews page now:)

    Like

    • July 8, 2020 at 8:59 pm

      Thanks! I heard you’re in lockdown again, I hope you’re doing well and that the bookshops will survive.

      Thanks for adding my billet to the Reviews Page.

      Like

      • July 9, 2020 at 2:51 am

        I’m feeling a bit downcast, TBH. I was fine the first time round, because (like everyone else) it was about preventing this thing from taking hold. Now it’s a case of the lid being off Pandora’s box…

        Like

        • July 9, 2020 at 8:18 am

          It seems like a never-ending story and it’s a bit frightening.

          Like

          • July 9, 2020 at 9:56 am

            Yes. Venturing out feels like tackling the perils of Mt Everest!

            Like

  3. July 7, 2020 at 11:18 am

    I’m not sure I can bear to read any more books or watch any more films about bad parenting and the consequences on the children. Just for once I would like to read a book where the parents have really tried their best and done everything right (as far as possible, we all know that you can’t be perfect and anyway whose perfection are we defining)… and still the child is a right old git.

    Like

    • July 8, 2020 at 9:02 pm

      I know, these books are hard to stomach. Their good side is that they blow away this silly idea about natural motherly instinct. Being a woman doesn’t mean you’ll be a loving mother.

      As for your other wish, good old Balzac did it in Le Père Goriot. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. July 7, 2020 at 4:19 pm

    The big problem is that so many Aboriginal children were taken from their mothers without cause, over the past century that welfare departments are now wary of being accused of racism. Despite which it is my understanding that Aboriginal families are still over represented.

    Like

    • July 8, 2020 at 9:05 pm

      Gwen is not Aboriginal. Jesse has an Aboriginal father, mentioned in passing but it’s not important in the story.

      However, according to what you say, if she had been Aboriginal, her children would have been sent in a forster home instead of staying with her.

      Like

  5. buriedinprint
    July 30, 2020 at 6:26 pm

    This is an author I’ve become aware of via Lisa’s blog too. How fortunate that you were able to find one of his books and bring it home with you!

    Like

    • July 31, 2020 at 6:44 am

      This is a great book, I really recommend it.

      Like

  1. July 7, 2020 at 10:35 am

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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