Shadowboxing by Tony Birch


You might all remember me raving about Tony Birch’s 2012 book Blood as soon as I read it last year. There’s something raw and just so good about his writing.

I’ve been meaning to read Shadowboxing forever. Hearing Tony speak at the launch of the Australian special of McSweeney’s last year reminded me and I took it home the following day. It’s been sitting on my ‘to read’ pile ever since.

Over the holidays, I tend to shy away from books that I think are going to be ‘too serious’. It’s the time I read crime, or comedy, or don’t read at all, getting totally absorbed in mediocre daytime TV. As much as I loved Blood, I couldn’t forget the stormy undertones. Without knowing a lot about Shadowboxing, I’d assumed that it would be an even darker predecessor, raw and shocking. I felt like I’d need my thinking cap on. So it sat on the pile, along with all of my good intentions, until the day I finally left the house with nothing but my bag and the book.

What I had forgotten, about Blood and about Birch as a writer is his matter-of-factness, the fresh tone that makes even cruel subject matter immensely readable. His writing is authentic and clean, steering clear from overt drama, instead trusting the reader to find the drama in each piece for themselves.

In Shadowboxing, the life of a son is chronicled through ten short stories. Picking through his memories, we follow Michael from childhood through to becoming a father himself.  Suburban Melbourne is the living backdrop of the pieces, and the changing scenery is as important as the evolution of the characters themselves.

Whether you’ve lived in Melbourne a day, a lifetime, or never stepped foot on Smith St in your life, you’ll feel grounded in the pages of Shadowboxing. The spaces are as real in history as for the reader. When the Red House is demolished the loss is personal. Each insult, each punch, each silence is felt beyond the pages. I moved to Melbourne nearly ten years ago. I didn’t see the Smith St of Shadowboxing, and yet it seems as though I’ve walked it myself, that I know both the street and its characters intimately as their lives spill out of rented houses and onto the now familiar pavement.

Short stories aren’t for everyone, despite how wonderful they can be (if you’re not convinced, I highly recommend the short stories of Roald Dahl). Shadowboxing though, will appeal to both lovers of short stories, and to those who prefer the experience of a whole novel. Really, the ten connected pieces in this book are less like short stories, and more like a style choice – ten cohesive chapters with shared characters and lives, all told by the same narrator. The difference though, is that the narrator is almost given the choice of the memories he chooses to share, so they can be close to home, or recalling a random incident, from childhood or adulthood. Overall this means that each piece could easily be read (in any order) alone, or as a part of the greater package.

I’ve still to read Father’s Day, but have no doubt that it will live up to my (now high) expectations. Like Scot Gardner, Tony Birch’s writing is perfectly Australian (an Australia that will have truth for the people who have ever lived here, not the camped up Australia so often seen on film). There’s no dwelling on the many gum trees that surround us, or particular native birds, and yet Australia is instantly recognisable as the setting.

Like BloodShadowboxing is a brilliant book – personal, captivating and immediate.

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