Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 18, 2018

Common People, by Tony Birch #BookReview

This collection of 15 short stories by Tony Birch brings us stories of the everyday as it is lived by marginalised people.  The title is ironic, because although it implies that these people are all around, often unseen, they are nonetheless remarkable.

The first story, ‘Ghost Train’ is confronting.  Two single mothers, Marian and Lydia, drive to a remote site in the country for a cash-in-hand meat-packing job which turns out to be in an off-the-grid slaughterhouse.  Marian is wearing a skimpy T-shirt featuring an image of Barack Obama, and on the way to the job she cops some good-natured ribbing from her friend who thinks that the gift of a T-shirt is an inadequate recompense for sleeping with a wife-cheating loser called Justin.  But Marian says she likes it:

Marian ran a fingernail across the word HOPE below the president’s face.  ‘I don’t care.  I love the T-shirt, and the message.  It’s saying, you know, don’t give up. Hope!’ 

‘Are you serious?’

‘Yeah.  There’s nothing wrong with hope, Lydia.  Just because you’ve given up on the world, doesn’t mean the rest of us have to. (p.3)

Marian and her T-shirt are smeared with blood by the time they leave, one hundred and fifty dollars cash each in their pockets.  But Lydia’s day hasn’t done anything to restore any sense of hope because her heart is aching along with her shoulders.  She saw something really grisly when she slipped away from her work and went the wrong way to the toilet.  In the last shipping container they are processing the carcasses of animals that none of us would knowingly eat.  And the manager judges correctly that a guarantee of future work will ensure her silence.

Birch doesn’t romanticise the marginalised: Marian makes assumptions about a Vietnamese woman and is rude about her, within her hearing because she assumes she can’t understand English.  Rose gets a quiet form of comeuppance at the end of the story, which I really liked.

The second story ‘Harmless’ features a 13-year-old loner who takes an interest in a gentle misfit known to all as ‘Harmless’.  People in the community…

… would sometimes offer him help, but Harmless didn’t want help, and let them know without speaking a word.   He used to sleep nights in the bandstand in the middle of the park, except on cold and wet winter nights, when the police would drive by and insist he take up their offer of a bed, a blanket and a hot meal.  (p.15)

Some hard boys from the city beat him up, and that was the trigger for Harmless to make a home for himself in an abandoned timber shack and that is where the narrator goes for help when she finds a girl in trouble.  The town wants to make a heroes of them, but Nan wouldn’t hear of it.  She told me that no good could come from making a public spectacle of myself.  

Readers need to pay close attention to the characterisation in these stories.  This narrator is being brought up by her grandmother, and there’s a complete absence of any other family, though there’s a kindly garage owner who sells them a second-hand bike, and the policeman subverts the stereotype of the heartless copper by negotiating with Harmless for help that he is willing to accept.  (A much less benign copper features in a later story ‘Colours’.)  The husbands in ‘Ghost Train’ have shot through, and the other men are all hard cases which adds to the sense of menace.  The stories don’t feature ‘picket-fence’ families at all, except in ‘Sissy’ where the nuns arrange a holiday for a girl who’s never seen the sea.

A car turned into the street, a rare occurrence in the neighbourhood.  A couple of boys who’d been playing with a rusting three-wheeler bike chased the car as it slowly moved along the road.  Miriam dropped her cigarette and ground it under the heel of her shoe.  The car stopped in front of their house, a powder blue sedan that shined like new.  It was a small car, Sissy noticed, a two-door without a back seat.  She didn’t know anyone who owned a car and Sissy had never ridden in one.  She raised herself slightly out of her chair to catch a glimpse of the driver.  The passenger side window was so clean and shining all she could see was her mother’s apprehensive olive-skinned face reflected back to her.

The car door opened and a woman got out.  Although it was a hot morning she wore a mauve-coloured woollen suit and a straw hat with matching mauve flowers sewn into the brim, shading her pale skin.  She was so white Miriam was certain the lady was ill.  The woman walked around to the front of the car but remained on the road.  Miriam stepped onto the footpath and half curtsied before realising the stupidity of her action.  (p.136)

This story is especially poignant for the way we see an Indigenous single mother reacting as any parent would to the idea of letting her child go away for two weeks with people she doesn’t know, and then accedes to the offer because the opinion of the nuns at Sissy’s school clouds her own better judgement.

My favourite story is ‘Frank Slim.’  The people in these stories don’t access the services that middle-class Australia takes for granted, and a brothel-madam who’s paying protection money to the police doesn’t have any expectation that they might help when she is menaced by a very unsavoury character.   She also rejects the idea of any help from Welfare when one of her ‘girls’ shoots through, leaving her 12-year-old son behind.  But Viola has her own solutions to these problems, and her own ‘community’ doesn’t let her down.

There are not many authors who can override my preference for the novel with a collection of short stories, but Tony Birch is one of them.

PS That arresting cover design and illustration is by Josh Durham from Design by Committee.

Author: Tony Birch
Title: Common People
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2017
ISBN: 9780702259838
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Common People

 


Responses

  1. Hi Lisa, great review. I loved these stories. Birch is such a natural writer and down to earth. My favourite story was “Ghost Train”, everyone just trying to make the best of their lives to survive.

    • Uh yes, but I tell you, I still can’t get that last image out of my mind… I won’t say what it is to avoid spoilers, but I really wish he hadn’t, you know? And yet… and yet… well, of course he must, it’s part of his honesty, and his mission in bringing to light that not everyone can afford to be so fastidious.

  2. Yes, I know what you mean!

  3. I’d love to read this. I was impressed by his interview on Books and Arts Daily last year. It’s a great title.

  4. Re Harmless, there was a kid at one school I went to called Horrible, and at another called Whacker. I think country people might do better (or worse!) nicknames.

    • Kids can be very cruel, though it all depends how these nicknames are used. But today’s kids are so fragile, there would probably be an after-school post-mortem if a teacher didn’t put a stop to it regardless of whether it was affectionately bestowed and accepted , or not.

  5. I think both you and Whispering Gums have recommended something of his at some point. His work is not widely available in our library system at this time (only one novel circulates, it seems) but hopefully with the recent attention that will change. These stories do sound remarkable and as I *do* love stories to start with, I’m doubly curious as they’ve seduced you into admiration after all!

    • Yes, I think I’ve read all of his published work, except his first collection of short stories.
      But *chuckle* there is a fair bit of “strong language” so if your library is prudish about that they may choose not to stock it.

  6. […] Common People, by Tony Birch (Penguin), see my review […]

  7. […] Common People by Tony Birch, short stories, see my review […]


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