Shadowboxing by Tony Birch, book review: Tales from the boy who survived


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'Shadowboxing' is made up of 10 interlinked short stories about a boy growing up in a working-class, inner Melbourne suburb in the Sixties. Vivid, compelling and occasionally heart-breaking, the collection was first published in Australia in 2006 by Aboriginal author Tony Birch and is on its way to becoming a classic there, taught on the secondary school syllabus in the state of Victoria.

Recurring themes, and characters, join these stories up – most notably the subject of masculine violence.At times raw and shocking, the book's darkness never overwhelms or becomes oppressive. Birch writes with a lightness that allows the drama to come from the story itself.

Boundaries between fiction and autobiography are blurred. The story is told through the eyes of Michael Byrne – beginning with him as a small boy, shortly after the death of his younger sister, and ending when he is a grown man with two young daughters of his own.

The parallels between Birch and Michael are clear: both grew up in the suburb, Fitzroy. Both experienced difficult childhoods and rebellious teenage years. Both were taught to box at an early age by violent fathers. And both were voracious readers.

Birch was born into a family of Aboriginal, West Indian and Irish descent. While the ethnicity of Michael is ambiguous, we are given an indication of it in "The Bulldozer" when a council worker addresses him: "What about you, kid. An Abo, an Indian, or a no-hoper? What are you? A bit of each, maybe?"

Perhaps it is the fictionalised nature of this deeply personal collection of memories that allows Birch to write in such an open, unhindered way, with a quality that verges on detachment.

Some stories stand out more than others, such as "The Lesson", in which a young Michael is forced by his tyrannical father to fight his friend until his mate lies on the ground, bloodied and begging.

"The Butcher's Wife" chronicles the daily physical abuse of a neighbour at the hands of a violent husband, and is particularly shocking, while "The Sea of Tranquillity" – which recounts a story from Michael's wayward teenage years in which he comes close to death after a severe accident in a stolen car – is both tragic and moving. Out of these tales of hardship and grief comes an uplifting, cohesive portrait of a boy who survived it all.