“Some people believe in religion. Well, I believe in stories.” So says Ren to his friend Sonny late in Tony Birch’s third novel Ghost River. Ren and Sonny are two young adolescent boys who live in Melbourne’s old inner-city suburb of Collingwood. It is the late 1960s, when Collingwood was a largely blue-collar neighbourhood. Ghost River is a novel about the power of stories – it’s also about the power of friendship, and the importance of community.
Last year I reviewed a short story by Tony Birch – Spirit in the night – but this is my first novel by him. While I can’t, therefore, speak authoritatively on his fiction, I’ve noticed some recurring themes or ideas in these two works. Both have young men as their protagonists, both deal with disadvantage, and both set fundamentalist style Christianity against a more humanist view of the world. Interesting. Relevant here too is that Birch is an indigenous Australian writer*. Indigeneity is an overt issue in Spirit in the night, but in Ghost River it’s present, underpinning the respect for place in particular, but is by no means in your face. It is important, sometimes, to put indigenous issues front and centre, but it is equally important for it to be a given, rather than always identified, teased out, featured.
Now, the plot, because this is a book with a strong plot, a story in other words! The novel starts with Sonny moving into Ren’s neighbourhood, Sonny being around 13 years old and Ren a year younger. Sonny lives with a drunken, abusive father. He’s tough, and wiser than Ren in the ways of the street. Ren lives in a stable, loving home with his mother and stepfather. He’s a dreamer, draws birds in particular, and soaks up stories. Early in the book, Sonny rescues Ren from a bully attack at school and from then on “it became the two of them, for better and worse”. The novel chronicles their friendship, as they explore their world and face its challenges – of which, you won’t be surprised to hear, there are many more for Sonny.
Their world is dominated by the river, a place Ren loves and knows “as good as anyone and better than most”, and to which he soon introduces Sonny. The river becomes their playground – a place to which they escape and where they test their skills. It also introduces them to another community, “the river men”, a small group of homeless men led by Tex. Through these colourfully named men – Tex, Tallboy, Big Tiny, Cold Can, and of course the Doc (there’s always a Doc isn’t there!) – Ren and Sonny learn much. They learn practical survival skills, but mostly they learn about loyalty, leadership and the value of mutual support. And they hear stories,
prison stories, drinking stories, lost dog stories, and tales of their years on the road. … Other stories were sacred, recited in hushed tones and observed in silence, except for the crack and groan of the fire.
Partway through the book, a fundamentalist Christian family moves next door to Ren, comprising Reverend Beck, his wife and their daughter Della. We soon realise that Father Beck’s relationship with his daughter has a dark side (if you take my meaning).
Meanwhile, Sonny struggles at school and is eventually pushed too far by a vindictive, cruel teacher. He leaves and gets a job at the local newsagent. Brixey, the newsagent, is one of those men who can look beneath the surface to see potential and, rightly, sees potential in Sonny. It’s not long before Sonny is working hard – using his nous to work some deals, and subcontracting Ren to help out before and after school. Ren, you see, is saving for a camera so he can photograph, as well as draw, his beloved birds.
And then, completing this cast of characters, are the bad guys. There’s Foy the corrupt policeman, gangster Vincent and his henchman, and Chris the illegal SP bookmaker. Through no fault of his own, Sonny, with Ren tagging along as support, gets caught in Vincent’s net, and things become seriously nasty.
Have you noticed how much I’ve focused on the story in my discussion? It’s rare for me to spend so much time in a review on what happens, but it is hard not to here, given the importance of plot. However, there are other aspects worth talking about, particularly the river. It is the main motif – physical but also spiritual and metaphorical – that runs through the book. Unfortunately the river is threatened by plans to build a freeway. For the boys and the river men this spells disaster, the river being important to their wellbeing:
Walking home from their excursions upriver Ren would feel a little different. He couldn’t make sense of it. He knew it was a feeling he craved, but one in danger of slipping away from him. Even Sonny would be calmer. He would look up at the sky as if he was trying to unravel a mystery.
Tallboy tells the boys stories of the river, of how it had changed over time and of the “ghost river” beneath the existing one. He draws “a swirling snake” in the dirt and says:
‘This is her. And when a body dies on the river, it goes on down, down, to the ghost river. Waiting. If the spirit of the dead one is true, the ghost river, she holds the body to her heart. If the spirit is no good, or weak, she spews it back. Body come up. Simple as that.
And so it comes to pass – but you’ll have to read the book to find out more. Tallboy tells the boys, after hearing the freeway plans, “The river. Now, she needs you most of all.”
This is, essentially, a coming-of-age story. There is humour here, particularly in some of the early descriptions of the characters; the pacing is good; the dialogue believable; and the main characters are well drawn. But does it all work? It might just be me, because I’m more interested in character and ideas than plot, but I did find the plot a bit loose, primarily due to having multiple storylines. I’m not sure whether we really needed the Reverend Beck story, and I didn’t love the gangster-bookmaker-corrupt policemen story either though I suppose (says she, the comfortable middle-class white female reader) young boys can get caught up in nasty business. These seemed to me to get in the way of, dilute even, the save-the-river story. However, these plotlines certainly reinforce the idea that life is tough, and that it often requires difficult decisions. Tough, but not impossible. It’s not a spoiler, I think, to say that the novel’s resolution is cautiously hopeful.
“Books”, Ren’s stepfather Archie tells him, “can take you places”. While Ghost River didn’t work for me on all levels, it did take me to a very interesting place and time. I’m not at all sorry that I went there.
Lisa also reviewed this book, from the perspective of someone who knows Melbourne, the river and the freeway (which was, in the end, built. Of course)!
St Lucia: UQP, 2015
(Review copy courtesy UQP)
* As for many people, his origins are mixed, Irish Catholic on his mother’s side, and Jamaican-Indigenous Australian on his father’s.