‘The Promise’ by Tony Birch

birch_promise

2014, 219 p.

I was prompted to read this book as part of Lisa’s Indigenous Literature Week at ANZLitLovers.  I’ve read several books by Tony Birch previously, one a novel Blood and the other, Shadowboxing a series of linked short stories. I think of him as a local, who can often be spotted around Melbourne and occasionally I’ve seen him down at our local shopping centre, oddly enough.  While his works are fictional, you sense that the author’s own lifestory hovers nearby. Birch’s indigenous heritage seems to be treated as just one aspect of his character, as it is in amongst the narrators in this series of short stories too. Class, education and a wounded masculinity are just as much markers of identity in his characters as their indigeneity,  where if it features at all, it is mentioned almost in passing. It’s not that it’s downplayed or ignored, but it’s interwoven through his characters’ other experiences and world-views.  (There’s an excellent reflection on Birch and his aboriginality in Eve Vincent’s review of ‘The Promise’ in SRB)

All of these twelve short stories are told in the first person, and although it is not the same character, it is pretty much the same voice. Several of the stories involve young boys, left pretty much to their own devices in the scrubby, abandoned frontiers of an urban landscape in the absence of parents: under freeways, along river banks, playing in the shadows of Housing Commission high-rise buildings  and in deserted bowling alleys. Where the narrator is a grown man, he is often standing on the edge of a loss of a relationship, scorched by grief and toeing the line of defeat or deciding to ‘move on’. His characters are not generally written about in literature. They are workers whose jobs are a means to an end, rather than their own enterprise or a profession. Some of them dance on the edge of criminality, alcoholism and addiction and  families are often absent or fractured.

My favourite amongst the stories is ‘The Money Shot’, about a trio of thieves about to do a ‘job’ only to find that one of their group has to literally mind the baby.  There’s a humour in this story that is not found in the others. In another story, ‘The Lovers’, a waiter in a restaurant speculates about a couple who come in every week.

Birch is good at capturing a moment, a dilemma, a decision and co-opting your sympathy as a reader, almost against your better judgement. However, in several of these stories I found myself turning the page, only to find that the story had ended. I don’t need a resolution, or for everything to be tied up neatly, but the incompleteness of some of these stories frustrated me.  This was more true of the early stories in the collection, and I don’t know if the later stories became more rounded, or whether I’d become accustomed to having the narrative yanked away so abruptly.  So, I think of these stories more as shards, sharp-edged and needing to be handled carefully (just as their main characters are), rather than rounded wholes in themselves.  I just can’t help thinking, though, that some of them are a ‘promise’ left unfulfilled.

My rating: 6.5

Sourced from : Yarra Plenty Regional Library

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4 responses to “‘The Promise’ by Tony Birch

  1. Pingback: Reviews from Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ Litlovers 2017 | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  2. Pingback: Time poor? Short fictions to read for Indigenous Literature Week July 2-9 2017 | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  3. Thanks for this, Janine, I’ve added it to the Reviews page, the master reading list and to the post about short fictions for the time poor, so it’s going to be very useful, thank you!
    I love what you say about Birch ‘co-opting your sympathy as a reader, almost against your better judgement’ – I definitely found myself doing this in his novel Blood!

  4. Thoughtful review. I like [race] “just one aspect of his character”. I wonder how often I am guilty of defining someone just by his or her skin colour.

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