Cross posted at 3000Melbourne
An absorbing and affecting story about the bond between siblings and the strength of children in a world where the adults are unreliable, Blood was an impressive contender for the 2012 Miles Franklin Award.
This is the first novel from Tony Birch, author of the short story collections Shadowboxing and Father’s Day and longstanding creative writing lecturer at the University of Melbourne. Through his sparse, unadorned prose, Birch vividly evokes the harshness of the Australian landscape, and his mastery of pacing creates a sense of immediacy and tension that makes this book almost impossible to put down.
The story is told from the perspective of 13-year-old Jesse, who has shouldered most of the parental responsibility for his eight year old sister Rachel ever since she was born. Their mother – the careless, unstable Gwen, who refuses such an aging label as “mum” and who has a “habit for latching onto men who were good with their fists” – seems incapable of providing the sort of care they need. Jesse, jaded by Gwen’s endless promises, is fiercely protective of his little sister, and with the ritualised merging of blood from their fingertips, he vows to always shield her from harm, no matter what the cost.
Gwen drags them all around the fringes of civilisation, from the outback to suburbia and back again. They live hand to mouth, staying in abandoned farms, sharehouses and seedy motels wherever they can. Only a brief stay with Gwen’s father gives the kids any kind of stabilising influence, a glimpse of a different way of living. Then, almost imperceptibly, the novel shifts into darker territory, and it becomes a gripping chase story, where loyalties are tested and risks are taken with almost sickening consequences.
Birch captures Jesse’s voice with considerable authenticity, balancing the naivete of youth with that certain kind of maturity born of a tough upbringing. He has insights beyond his years, but he is still very much a kid. The relationship between Jesse and Rachel gives the narrative a compelling emotional centre, and some scenes – like the Christmas spent with Pop, when the children receive their first real Christmas presents – are almost heartbreaking.
The other great strength of Blood is the vividness of the sense of place. The quietness of the dusty, parched roads and wide open plains compound the subtly escalating sense of danger, building a feeling of suspense that will have you engrossed until the final page turn.