Blood by Tony Birch

Tony Birch’s debut novel, Blood, will surely attract a lot of interest from the many fans of his accomplished short stories. He has published two acclaimed collections, Shadowboxing (2006) and Father’s Day (2009) – but this is first foray into the longer form. The move into an extended narrative can be tricky for short-story writers, resulting in a sense of the story being padded out. I’m happy to report no such awkwardness here – in fact, I stayed up late to finish Blood in one greedy gulp, so invested I was in the fate of its main characters, brother and sister Jesse and Rachel.

Thirteen-year-old Jesse is unusually mature for his age, with good reason: he’s been looking after younger sister Rachel since he was five, in the face of indifferent neglect from their mother, Gwen. The siblings’ longest stint in a stable-ish home is their time living in a rundown farmhouse near Melbourne airport with tattooed ex-con Jon. At first, they fear he’ll be ‘good with his fists’, like so many of Gwen’s boyfriends, but instead he turns out to be a rare stabilising influences in their lives, baking cakes and sharing life-advice, until Gwen gets bored with his domestic ways and kicks him out. Later, an unexpected stay with Gwen’s father, a reformed alcoholic, provides another aborted glimmer of hope. But before long, Gwen, Jesse and Rachel are stuck with another thoroughly bad character ‘good with his fists’ – and Jesse takes an opportunity to make a dash for a better life, taking an audacious risk that brings seriously dark consequences.

This is a fractured fairytale, a dark Australian road story, but also an affecting tale about the bond between a brother and sister, and how the most unexpected people can transform lives. Birch delivers edge-of-your-seat suspense and engrossing characterisation in equal measures.

Jo Case is a bookseller at Readings Doncaster.

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Tony Birch

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