Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 27, 2015

Ghost River (2015), by Tony Birch

Ghost RiverThe river men told prison stories, drinking stories, lost dog stories, and tales of their years on the road. Ren was a good listener and quickly understood there were strict rules governing how a story was told and listened to. Interjections were occasionally allowed, by way of a jeer or a hand shooting into the air, requesting a point-of-order. Big Tiny was the most common culprit in that regard. Other stories were sacred, recited in hushed tones and observed in silence, except for the crack and groan of the fire. (p.24)

The rules for reading Tony Birch’s latest novel, Ghost River, are equally simple.  Be satisfied with a clear chronological narrative, and no fancy authorial tricks – but show respect for what you are learning.  There’s more to this novel than meets the eye at first glance.

Ghost River is a coming-of age tale, set in the late sixties in the pre-gentrified suburb of Collingwood and along our then unloved Yarra River.  This is a time when manufacturers were free to discharge foul pollutants into the river, when it wasn’t safe for a swim.  The Eastern Freeway was yet to scourge its way through it, and the surrounding bush was a haven for rabbits, foxes and feral cats.

Stories of the river were told across the city.  There wasn’t a child living within reach of the water who hadn’t grown up warned away from it with tales of dead trees lurking in the darkness of the muddy riverbed, ready to snatch the leg of a boy or girl braving its filthy waters.  Rusting skull and crossbones signs, hammered into tree trunks around the old swimming holes, warned of infection.  There were also the horror stories of children who disappeared on sunny afternoons never to be seen again, leaving piles of clothing behind on the riverbank, waiting for a parent or the police to discover the telling evidence.  It wasn’t only children who drowned.  As well as the suicides there were the accidents.  People fishing fell out of boats from time to time and went straight down to the bottom, weighed down by heavy clothes and boots.  A dark joke claimed that drowning was a more fortunate end, as eating a fish caught in the river would cause a slower and more painful death.  (p. 32)

But Charlie ‘Ren’ Renwick and his mate Sonny Brewer who lives next door are immune to warnings:

In the days after their first river swim the boys couldn’t stay out of the water.  They explored the banks both upstream and downriver, trying out every swimming hole and increasingly testing their courage, jumping from rocks, out of trees, and eventually off the bridges that crossed the river.  Their first bridge jump was from Kane’s, a cable bridge that swayed from side to side in the slightest breeze.  It was no more than twenty feet above the water, but was challenge enough.  Having conquered it they moved onto others, testing their bravery, each bridge higher and more dangerous than the last.

Late in the afternoon, Ren would sneak along the lane behind his house, slip into Sonny’s yard and stand under a hose, trying to wash the silt from his body before returning home.  If he thought he deceived his mother about what he’d been up to, it was only himself that Ren was fooling.  When he brought the river home Loretta knew immediately he’d taken to the water.  She pinched her lip and held her tongue, worrying over her boy as a mother would, but unwilling to crush the free-spirited nature she quietly admired. (p. 35)

Loretta doesn’t have high expectations of life anyway.  Ren’s biological father hasn’t been seen since he got her pregnant, and she’s satisfied with the rare qualities of her new man, Archie, who never drank or raised a hand in anger.  If there was more she would have hoped for from a man, she never let it be known. (p.2)  But Ren’s doing ok at school, and she’s supportive of his ambition to be a nature photographer.  She keeps an eye on Sonny too, inviting him in for a meal when he needs it even though Archie’s warning that trouble’s moving in next to us turns out to be right.  Sonny, after all, believes that ‘more people are remembered for the bad things they done’.   It’s not long before Sonny attracts the attention of Foy, the local cop who’s not only brutal but also corrupt, but Sonny is so used to his father’s violence that Foy’s beatings seem not to dent his resilience.

The late sixties was also a time when sadistic teachers could express their prejudices at will, and the kid who couldn’t take it was the one who was expelled.  No one expected much from Collingwood kids anyway.  Sonny takes the initiative and gets a job at Brixey’s newsagent, and sub-contracts some of his round to Ren so that he can save up for an expensive camera.  But as the plot unfolds, Sonny needs to escape from more than just a violent and unpredictable father.


When his father disappears leaving six months rent paid in advance, Sonny finds that it is he, not his father, with a debt to be repaid, and he ends up mired in the covert dealings of the local gangster, an SP bookie, and Foy.  Ren, never as brave or foolhardy as Sonny, has to make some difficult choices when loyalty confronts his ideas about right and wrong.  I suspect that this aspect of the plot would be very engaging for YA readers.

Less engaging is the sub-plot of Della, whose father is the leader of a dubious religious cult that involves the sexual abuse of women.  (What is it about these cults, in real life as well as in fiction, that they always involve sexual abuse??) Della’s loss of innocence parallels Ren’s and Sonny’s but she sometimes seems like a stray character in this novel.

The river, on the other hand, is a major character, and so are the River Men, who live along it.  They are homeless Aboriginal alcoholics, but not the hopeless ‘derros’ of stereotype.  While the author doesn’t romanticise their lives or their dependence on alcohol, he celebrates the freedom that Doc, Tex, Tallboy, Cold Can Johnson and Big Tiny Wilkins all have.   The boys enjoy their company, their hospitality with the day’s catch, their stories and their occasional wisdom.  They understand when Doc dies, why he would rather have a river funeral that takes him to the old ghost river that lies beneath Port Phillip Bay than be buried in a pauper’s grave.  (The existence of this ancient river in Indigenous lore is now confirmed by science).

Birch (of indigenous ancestry and a childhood in an inner-city slum) has an  ‘outsider’ view of the world, and he shows his readers a different perspective.  Sonny is outraged by the earthworks that herald the construction of the Eastern Freeway on ‘his’ river, but he’s the one who gets into trouble for vandalism when he tries to make them pay for what they have done.   This naïveté – a feeble protest against the then all-powerful Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works – is due in part to his limited teenage experience of life and his education cut short, but also because these boys live in a very small world.  While both have seen much more of social ills than young boys should, they haven’t even been to St Kilda.  Yet this innocence of the rest of Melbourne is what makes the boys treasure what they have, and to see the environmental destruction as the vandalism that it was.

This book brought back memories of the day we biked around the Dight’s Falls area in the late 1970s.  Today there is a fancy trail, all nicely signposted with visitor access to the fishway that enables the migration of fish upstream, but when we did it, well, if there was a trail we certainly weren’t on it and we had to lug our bikes over boulders for a good deal of the way.  Now that it’s easy, it’s probably full of people enjoying it, but when we did it, we were all alone – right in the middle of Melbourne – enjoying a solitude and a sense of accomplishment that might have been a bit like Sonny and Ren’s.

Other reviews are at The Australian; The Guardian and the SMH.

Title: Ghost River
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2015
ISBN: 9780702253775
Review copy courtesy of UQP.


Fishpond: Ghost River


  1. I came very close to buying this one when I was in Oz in October, but there were only so many books I could fit in my luggage. It does sound like something I would like and I see it’s available in the UK (hooray!) so on to the wishlist it goes!


    • I think you will love this one, it’s very Melbourne!


  2. Oh, this sounds good. Thanks Lisa, I’d probably never have heard of it if it wasn’t for your blog.


    • He’s being reviewed in our major dailies, but I don’t think he’s cracked The Big Time Overseas yet. (Though I’d be very pleased to hear that I’m wrong about that). You’ve reminded me to link to those other reviews, they’ll be pay-walled but I think the pay-wall is set up so that you can read a few things and then have to pay, so it should be ok.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hello Lisa and blog readers,
    I’ve read Tony Birch’s story collection The Promise earlier this year. What I appreciated about the stories is the vernacular expressions, depiction of the natural landscape, and the beautifully complicated relationships and internal conflicts of the characters. It seems that much of Birch’s creative and scholarly writings are motivated by environmental justice concerns, Aboriginal identity and cultural politics, and reclaiming the authentic voices of marginalized communities. I just started reading Ghost River. The story brings to mind other fiction and nonfiction works I’ve read by both Australian Aboriginal and Native American authors from the United States.

    Chickasaw poet and novelist Linda Hogan has written a beautiful novel entitled Solar Storms that explores a young displaced Indian girl who rallies with female relatives and other people in the community to fight against the corporate exploitation of the native land. Cherokee novelist Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, Blackfoot novelist James Welch’s Fools Crow, Laguna Pueblo novelist Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, Alexis Wright’s novel Carpenteria, Pueblo poet Simon Ortiz’s collection From Sand Creek: Rising In This Heart Which Is Our America, and Winona LaDuke’s nonfiction text Recovering the Sacred: The Power of Naming and Claiming all work at authenticating obscure or lost indigenous narratives and reaffirming the preservation of the natural environment.


    • Wow, Sonia, that’s a sensational reading list you’ve given us there – not for the first time since you’ve been kind enough to comment here I’ve thought, I wish this reader had a blog of her own that I could explore! (If you do take the plunge, go WordPress not Blogger. I’ve used both and trust me, WP is better).
      I think you are spot on about Birch: I haven’t read The Short Stories but from my reading of Blood (his first novel) and this one, I think he’s on the side of the vulnerable underdog with hidden strengths, the marginalised who’ve learned to be wary with whom they trust, and the natural environment as you might discover it in a grungy urban world. He’s at his best characterising adolescent boys, and his authority figures run close to being stereotypes (sadistic teachers, brutal cops).
      I like the way in this novel that he shows these boys discovering the Aboriginal stories of the land from the river men. Many urbanised Aboriginal children have had their links to their culture broken, and this is a subtly political way of reminding us that these old blokes that many people dismiss as lost causes, can be a repository of an ancient wisdom, and can play a healing role for Aboriginal kids who are uncertain about their cultural identity.


      • Lisa,
        your perspective on Birch’s old male characters’ as a “repository of an ancient wisdom” and their mentorship of the adolescent main characters is striking. Conserving ancestral histories, cultural rites and customs, community testimonies, tribal/clan languages, and personal narratives through the creative written word is not only a individual and collective responsibility for indigenous writers but also as a revisionist agenda to subvert the power and influence of false fixed notions of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples steeped in racial, class, and gender stereotypes.

        I forgot to mention other pivotal Australian Aboriginal writers who have done important conservation and revisionist work- Oodgeroo Noonuccal, David Unaipon, Melissa Lucashenko, Lionel Fogarty, Kim Scott, Marie Munkara, Bruce Pascoe, Larissa Behrendt, Samuel Wagan Watson, Archie Weller, Ruby Langford Ginibi, Dr. Jackie Huggins, Doris Pilkington Garimara, and Sam Watson


        • I’m pleased to be able to say that I’ve read a good few of those, and of those I haven’t, all but a couple are on my TBR. Have you seen the new Blak and Bright website? They’re looking for contributions there…


  4. […] also reviewed this book, from the perspective of someone who knows Melbourne, the river and the freeway (which […]


  5. […] Ghost River by Tony Birch, see my review […]


  6. […] Ghost River by Tony Birch, UQP, see my review […]


  7. […] his Meet an Aussie Author page, and you can read reviews of his novels Blood and (my favourite) Ghost River. […]


  8. […] his Meet an Aussie Author page, and you can read reviews of his novels Blood and (my favourite) Ghost River. […]


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