Author: Tony Birch
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2006.
The inner-city Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy is the grim and gritty setting for Shadowboxing, Tony Birch’s collection of short stories about growing up in the 1960s.
Birch writes from the perspective of Michael Byrne, a young boy who tries to make sense of life with an angry, alcoholic father and a stoic, yet compliant mother. Every day is a bitter struggle for the Byrne family, and both Michael and his younger sister Katie must learn to live with the simmering violence. The narrative style is stark, honest and at times brutal, well suited to the tough tales of childhood, coming of age and ruthless social change.
Michael provides the natural link between the ten stories, each neatly connected to read more like a novel. We follow his adventures from a young child dealing with the death of a sibling, to lonely schoolboy, reckless teenager and eventually to adulthood, where we discover the type of man he turns out to be. Every tale has Michael on his toes, fists up and ready to spar real or imaginary opponents; life itself is something of a boxing match for this family.
Working class Fitzroy is a consistent theme throughout, changing over the years with urban renewal. It’s a time when bulldozers flatten entire streets of housing, pushing the poorest of residents out of the way of gentrification. This is a suburb where the next-door neighbour could be a petty criminal, an illegal abortionist or even a murderer.
The stories reflect a dark history of Australian suburbia; when domestic violence was not only tolerated, it was expected. Michael may never forget the tragedy and heartbreak of his childhood; however when he becomes a father himself, he gains a perspective that eventually helps him to forgive.
Shadowboxing is at once confronting and compelling reading, and a fascinating glimpse of suburban Melbourne few would recognise today.
Review by Jane O’Connell