Ghost River is not a book I would usually choose. But I am very glad it was chosen for me by my book club. Otherwise I might have missed this well-written, many-layered story.
At one level, Ghost River is a coming-of-age story of two thirteen-year-old boys, introvert Ren and his more adventurous mate, Sonny. The boys live in Collingwood (an inner Melbourne suburb) in 1968. Their families are dysfunctional. Their friendship is cemented when Sonny rescues Ren from a school-yard bully. But Sonny, also, is beaten by his father and bullied by a teacher. He is expelled from school.
Factories spew toxic waste into the Yarra River near the boys’homes. The adjoining area had been used as a tip. But it is also the boys’ playground. They explore. They swim. They dare each other to more dangerous, braver, exploits.
The boys are befriended by, and in turn befriend, a group of River Men. These misfits camp in makeshift shelter by the River Yarra. They tell wonderful stories of past times, former lives. There are rules for their story telling. Everyone must be heard. No interruptions.
The men share stories with the boys about the river. They call it Ghost River and tell how it reclaims its own. This myth pervades their lives. I imagine the men are Aboriginal. In one poignant scene, the corpse of one of the River Men is given back to the river. The boys watch. Perhaps the men have taken to the boys because they, also, are Aboriginal.
Much of Ghost River is bleak. There are criminal gangs who suck the boys into their work. There is a corrupt senior police officer. There is a cult church, with implicit sexual exploitation of young women. The area the boys know and care about is under threat from development.
But there is also much goodness and humour. Ren’s mother is fiercely protective of her son. An uncle takes care of Sonny when his father leaves home abruptly. When the uncle takes ill, Ren’s mother protects Sonny from the Welfare. There is the businessman who gives Sonny a job as a paper boy. He believes in the boys and protects them. There is Ren’s love of birds and his desire to photograph them.
Ghost River is a page-turner. Tony Birch tells a cracking story and the plot moves fast. I read with my heart in my mouth. What could go wrong next? Each time, how would they escape? Was there any hope for these children? With the exception, perhaps, of the people involved with the cult, the characters feel real. I cared about them.
This story is also a tiny slice of social history of Melbourne immediately before coming of a Freeway to the area. It precedes the the gentrification of suburbs along the Yarra.
Ghost River is a long list finalist for the prestigious 2016 Miles Franklin Award.