Ghost River

Tony Birch

Ghost River
University of Queensland Press
23 September 2015

Ghost River

Tony Birch

You find yourself down at the bottom of the river, for some it’s time to give into her. But other times, young fellas like you two, you got to fight your way back. Show the river you got courage and is ready to live.

The river is a place of history and secrets. For Ren and Sonny, two unlikely friends, it’s a place of freedom and adventure. For a group of storytelling vagrants, it’s a refuge. And for the isolated daughter of a cult reverend, it’s an escape.

Each time they visit, another secret slips into its ancient waters. But change and trouble are coming - to the river and to the lives of those who love it. Who will have the courage to fight and survive and what will be the cost?


Ren is a bit of loner in his early teens. Not lonely, but a boy who makes the time go past without the help of others. Ren’s outlook for summer takes a turn for the better when the new kid at school, Sonny, moves in next door. Sonny is all limbs and movement, a burst of energy with a magical ability to find trouble anywhere he goes. Ren can’t resist and the boys quickly become the closest of friends.

When Ren takes Sonny to his favourite place – the Yarra River – Sonny becomes smitten too, and the boys dedicate their summer to exploring the ancient, winding waterway. They seek out the highest bridges to jump off, search for WWII tunnels, and befriend a crew of men who live by the river, drinking and story-telling themselves to an early grave. The river is a source of endless adventure and delight to the boys, and is the centre-point of the narrative, much as rivers are the spine that cities grow around. As inevitable as it is that young boys will grow, cities will do the same, and when development threatens Ren and Sonny’s sanctuary the boys are faced with a brutal reality and must make choices.

This is a beautiful novel, part coming-of-age story, part history of inner Melbourne. Birch doesn’t lean on the location for authenticity, rather he builds it through character. The dialogue had me laughing out loud, and working out the different sites on the river was a sneaky pleasure. The two boys are captured well, with their localised longings and the way they view adults aslant. It piqued the nostalgiac in me, but not too much. I was too interested in what Ren and Sonny were up to, and what they were going to do to save their river.

Robbie Egan

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