Common People by Tony Birch

‘Common’ in Tony Birch’s new collection of short stories, Common People (University of Queensland Press) could allude to the commonality – shared traits and unity – of people, or the working-class roots of many of his characters. Either way, these stories are unflinching accounts of Aboriginal, poor, vulnerable, victimised or depraved characters. Many have fine hearts despite their disadvantaged circumstances.

Birch employs recurring symbols and themes such as stars; drugs and drug dealing; unwell, collapsing men and positive girl figures throughout the tales. He tells stories through the eyes of young or child narrators here – and across much of his fiction.

The first story, ‘The Ghost Train’ is a memorable, seemingly despairing account of two women who work their first night shift at a meat packing factory. And yet the word “HOPE” is inscribed on Maria’s T-shirt, albeit on a picture of Barack Obama’s face.

‘Harmless’ is one of several stories featuring a positive, proactive, young girl. An old hermit-like man living alone in a hut helps the girl narrator – who has a certain freedom and agency from riding her bike – care for another young female, abused 14-year-old Rita. This tale evokes the roaming boys in Birch’s Ghost River and their encounters with a group of old men. (I have previously blogged about Ghost River.)

‘Death Star’ integrates two of Birch’s prevalent concerns in this collection – drugs and stars as a symbol. Young Dominic doesn’t go to his older brother’s funeral. His brother was a car thief and died in a car accident. He also loved stars.

‘Liam’ is a powerful recount about Liam who was locked up at the age of 16 for robbery. The young narrator’s religious Catholic family took him in and, as a charismatic storyteller, Liam became a loved family member. However, his pet dog, Sally Ann, became aggressive when something terrible happened.

‘Sissy’ also appears in The Best Australian Stories 2017, edited by Maxine Beneba Clarke. Sissy is chosen by the nuns to have a holiday with another family. She becomes uneasy after her friend Betty tells her of a girl she knows in a similar situation who didn’t return from her holiday.

Viola, a Madam, breaks her own rules to care for young Gabriel when he is brought to her brothel in the eviscerating ‘Frank Slim’.

A company tries to return cremated remains to their next of kin in ‘Raven & Sons’; a reformed (or not) alcoholic grandmother looks after her grandson for the first time in ‘Worship’; grown men are ailing in ‘Paper Moon’, ‘Joe Roberts’ and ‘Painted Glass’; and Aboriginal characters feature in ‘The White Girl’ and ‘Colours’.

Protectors of Secret Natural Places: Tony Birch and Inga Simpson

TreesI was very fortunate to chair a session with Inga Simpson and Tony Birch at the Sydney Writers Festival.

They both have had books long or short listed for the prestigious Miles Franklin award. Tony’s Ghost River is currently longlisted.

It was also shortlisted for two categories in this year’s NSW Premier’s Awards: the Christina Stead prize for fiction and the newly created Indigenous Prize.

Tony and Inga both know their way around universities, as well as being accomplished fiction writers who take us on secret, sensory journeys with their young characters, particularly into natural ‘inbetween’ places, around rivers and trees.

I was first aware of Inga’s writing when her debut novel, Mr Wigg was shortlisted for the Indies awards. I remember the ripples that her lyrical writing about an elderly man in his orchard caused in the literary community.

The writing in her second novel Nest is also the equivalent of fine slow-cooking with its depiction of Jen’s life in a sub-tropical forest but it is utterly captivating and suspenseful at the same time. Nest

Her new novel Where the Trees Were also has evocative descriptions of place – the river and trees.

A group of boys and one girl, Jay, spend their summer holidays before starting high school in the bush, mainly around the river. They find a circle of trees that seem to be out of time and world. Designs are carved into their trunks. Are they a story or code?

The parts of the story about Jay as a girl are told in first person. We also meet her as an adult in Canberra, told in third person.

The indolence of quite an idyllic childhood, although charged with the urgency of adolescence, changes to a harder-edged anticipation and anxiety when a conservationist, (we’re not immediately told her name is Jayne) is involved in stealing a carved Indigenous artifact, an arborglyph, a Wiradjuri burial tree.

Tony Birch’s writing is assured, direct and unpretentious.

I was very moved by his novel Blood, particularly the strength of character and loving heart of his young part- Aboriginal protagonist, Jesse.

His most recent novel is Ghost River, set in the 1960s where the intersected lives of two adolescent boys and the dispossessed river men play out alongside the Yarra River. Ghost River

Storytelling and the changes and roils of life are intrinsic to this novel, reflected in Tony’s own virtuosic story-telling style which moves from energy and adventure to trouble, pathos and weariness and back again like the river itself.

I wonder how much of his own boyhood Tony has drawn upon to create his lively characters Ren, and particularly Sonny.

Mr Wigg