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Blood bonds.

June 29, 2012

Tony Birch’s compelling debut novel, Blood, takes us on a bleak but gripping road trip through the dusty roads and seedy motels of rural Australia, as a young brother and sister find themselves on the run. Writing in the brilliantly authentic narrative voice of his 13-year-old protagonist, Jesse, Birch weaves a powerful tale of family bonds and gothic suspense, and of blood that symbolises both violence and loyalty.

Jesse and his younger sister, Rachel, drew the short straw when it came to parents: their mother, Gwen, is a hopeless drunk who staggers from boyfriend to boyfriend and barely manages to look after herself, let alone her two children. All Jesse and Rachel have is each other; while Jesse longs to escape Gwen, Rachel is what keeps him from fleeing. To calm her tears after she discovers that she’s only his half-sister, Jesse convinces Rachel to make a blood pact with him. ‘It works like a ritual’, he tells her as they press their bloodied thumbs together. ‘I saw it on TV. It’s a powerful spell and it can’t be broken. Not by anyone.’

The siblings’ pact is tested sooner than they think. They enjoy a fleetingly brief period of stability—first with a heavily tattooed boyfriend of Gwen’s, Jon, who lives with them for a while and proves to be a surprisingly adept father figure (he even bakes a cake for them and ices it with whipped cream: ‘“this is what you come up with after two years in the prison kitchen. She’s a beauty. Wish I had a fucken camera”’), and then with Gwen’s taciturn but caring father—their mother meets a new man, Ray, and insists that the kids accompany them to Adelaide.

Jesse takes an instant dislike to Ray, who ‘looked like he’d walked out of a cowboy movie. And he was the bad guy’. After days on the road together, Ray takes his makeshift new family to an isolated farmhouse to meet Limbo, a menacing man with ‘pale skin the colour of milk’. Ray and Limbo are in the midst of a dubious business deal, and when things turn sour, Gwen takes the kids and flees. But Jesse has something that Ray and Limbo want; the two men are on their trail, and Jesse knows it won’t be long before they catch up.

This may be Birch’s first novel, but he’s a well-estabished short fiction writer—the idea for Blood came from a piece that originally appeared in Brothers and Sisters, a wonderful 2009 short story anthology edited by Charlotte Wood. Birch’s story expands beautifully into a novel, with richly evoked characters and a tautly paced plot that becomes genuinely suspenseful in its final third.

Birch weaves some interesting themes about the nature of good and evil, and the redemptive strength of innocence and faith, into his deceptively simple road trip tale. While religion crops up frequently—Rachel is named after a Biblical character, Gwen’s father is a preacher, and Jesse tells Limbo that he should be named Purgatory instead, because it’s ‘where you go after you die, and you stay there until somebody says enough prayers for you to go to heaven’—none of the characters express strong religious beliefs, and a tarot card that Jesse picks turns out to be eerily prescient (whether by coincidence or not). ‘For as long as I could remember I’d never believed in a heaven or hell’, Jesse reveals. ‘When a kid at the foster home had asked me if I believed in God, and I said no and told him what I reckoned happened to people after they died, he bawled like a baby. I knew it should have scared me too, but it never had.’ Jesse is a pragmatist—perhaps due to all that he’s witnessed and experienced for one so young—and his pledge to protect his sister is borne of love, and a filial duty that he feels obliged to fulfil not because of religious faith, but because of the ‘magic’ he creates with his blood ritual.

What’s most effective about Blood is the authenticity of its narrator. With unadorned but evocative prose, Birch perfectly captures the voice of a boy who occupies the uncertain territory between childhood and adulthood—a kid who’s seen things some adults can’t imagine, but who hasn’t yet entirely lost his innocence.

The only aspect of the novel that jars slightly is Gwen, who’s so awful that she starts to feel like a caricature of a white trash mother—a swearing, drinking, smoking no-hoper who doesn’t seem to care what her children are exposed to, or what state they see her in. While I’ve no doubt that it isn’t an unrealistic portrayal, it sometimes feels manipulative, as though Birch wants to stack the odds as firmly against Jesse and Rachel as possible, both to make their plight seem more dramatic and to wring maximum sympathy and interest from us.

In the end, he succeeds, and I’m clearly not the only one who thinks so: Blood was short-listed for this year’s Miles Franklin Award (which went, deservingly, to Anna Funder’s wonderful All That I Am). With a clever blend of literary style and gripping suspense, Birch has created a thought-provoking and moving tale of faith and courage in an unforgiving adult world.

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