Common People

Tony Birch

Common People
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Common People

Tony Birch

In this unforgettable new collection Tony Birch brings alive a cast of characters from all walks of life. These remarkable and surprising stories explore the lives of common people caught up in the everyday business of living and the struggle to survive.

From a young girl who is gifted to a middle-class family for Christmas to a homeless deaf man who unexpectedly delivers a baby, Birch’s stories are set in gritty urban refuges and struggling regional communities. His deftly drawn characters find unexpected signs of hope in a world where beauty can be found on every street corner - a message on a t-shirt, a friend in a stray dog, a star in the night sky - and the ordinary kindness of strangers can have extraordinary results.

In Common People Birch turns his lens on shared experiences in modern society, his signature perceptivity affirming his position as one of Australia’s finest writers of fiction.

Stories include: ‘The Ghost Train', ‘Harmless', ‘Colours', ‘Joe Roberts', ‘The White Girl', ‘Party Lights', ‘Paper Moon', ‘Painted Glass', ‘Frank Slim', ‘Liam', ‘Raven and Sons', ‘The Good Howard', ‘Sissy', ‘Death Star', ‘Worship'.

Review

In one of Tony Birch’s stories, a young character says, ‘You never told me that part of the story.’ Her friend Betty replies, ‘No, I didn’t. It was better to concentrate on the best part. That’s how stories work.’ This could be an analogy for Birch’s collection Common People. All 15 stories have been distilled to their best parts and finest quality, and the result is a collection that stands out for its voice and compassion.

In ‘Sissy’, two Indigenous girls live in inner-city Fitzroy in the 1960s. Birch creates a wonderful picture of a poor but interdependent community; some of whom have never travelled outside their suburb. Sissy’s skin is ‘whiter’ than her best friend Betty’s, and she is given the opportunity by the nuns at her school to holiday with a wealthy family. She imagines first-time experiences: seeing the ocean, riding in a car, and being in a house with its own telephone. As the holiday nears, Betty reveals her jealousy and resentment, and Sissy begins to have doubts of her own.

Birch has won multiple literary awards and been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin. His exceptional dialogue defines many of the characters. In the first story, ‘Ghost Train’, two women drive to a meat-packing job, their easy banter and mutual jibes demonstrating their long-term friendship. Interestingly, the collection is bookended with one of these characters, Lydia: in ‘Worship’, we learn of her daily rituals to maintain her sobriety, as she prepares to look after her granddaughter for the first time.

Birch is comfortable with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous characters, children, young adults, men and women. His affection for his characters is evident, and he is aware of the hardships they face, exacerbated by factors such as race, class, poverty or politics. What is exceptional in many of the stories is the way the characters put aside their own difficulties to care for, or give back to, other ‘common people’.


Annie Condon is a bookseller at Readings Hawthorn.

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