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The White Girl
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The White Girl

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The White Girl

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This is a sweet, well-characterised piece of fiction, and I think perhaps an important read at this point in time. In the early 1960s, Odette, an old lady in a small country town, cares for her illegitimate granddaughter Sissy. Odette has lived long enough to watch the transition of Australia from colonial outpost to modern nation, but along the way she has never been considered worthy of owning a piece of the pie for one simple reason: she is Aboriginal. Sissy, too, of course is Aboriginal but her father is white and she has been blessed - the characters would say - to have very light skin. As a result, her place in the culture is both more assured (there is some opportunity to "pass" as white) but also more dangerous - Sissy is still, like all Aboriginal people, a ward of state, and thus it is very easy for certain people to assume they have ownership rights over her. When the town's crop of unpleasant white men begin showing an interest in Sissy, Odette is forced to reckon with the truth about what happened to Sissy's mother, and to find a route for the two of them to get the heck out of Dodge.

Birch is a straightforward writer of general fiction, and The White Girl is an easy read. Birch draws clear dividing lines between his good and evil characters, which would frustrate in a more literary work, but here feel instead like reflections of the cultural forces pulling at Sissy from both sides. To achieve this, Birch uses the literary toolkit of a Charles Dickens, drawing his supporting characters in broad strokes to better bring out the essential goodness of his protagonist (in contrast to the Emile Zola school of writing, where every character must be at least a little bit angelic and a wee bit cruel).

As Odette gradually narrates her past to Sissy, I was reminded how rarely older women get to play a leading role in fiction, and how rarely the grandmother/granddaughter relationship is permitted to be a positive force. The novel is also suffused with that strange melancholy of "historical fiction" set within what is - for some - still living memory. (For me, I had to occasionally check my assumptions that this was taking place in the distant past. No; only three decades after the events of this story, I myself would be growing up in a country town of my own. Admittedly, mine was more like the regional hub from which residents of Deane visit for their shopping and to gawk at the latest inventions of modernity.)

Nevertheless, I am surprised to see The White Girl among the finalists for this year's Miles Franklin Award. When I think of that award's goal to target the "highest literary merit", I think of many of Birch's fellow nominees - Peggy Frew's elegant prose, John Hughes' sparse determination, Philip Salom's inventiveness, and the sheer sublimity of Tara June Winch. I think instead we would be wise to celebrate Birch for his own strengths, and his ease of readership, rather than elevating popular fiction just so that awards panels can widen their audience base.

Still, none of this is Birch's fault. I would recommend The White Girl to all those interested in Australian history, but with a caveat that this is a Dickensian view of the world, not a Zolaesque one. ( )
  therebelprince | Nov 15, 2020 |
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