The common people who fill the pages of Tony Birch’s book of short stories come from all walks of life. The people, and the stories, sometimes tell of great hardship. But they also tell of the kindness and generosity of strangers who make difference and provide hope.
In this, his third collection of short stories, Birch proves yet again his mastery of the short story genre. Each one satisfied me. They also left me with much to ponder as I recalled the characters and the emotions which the author aroused.
The title, Common People
The title of this collection puzzles me, at least on one level. The term can mean ‘ordinary people’ as distinguished from leaders in society or the political class. Sometimes it can mean the people from one’s own town. But there are other, disparaging definitions. Riffraff, rabble and plebeian come to mind
In the end, it doesn’t matter what Birch intends by the title. In some ways, all definitions fit. What does matter, however, is that the humanity of each character shines through the writing of this gentle story-teller.
An Indigenous writer, Birch writes frequently about Aboriginal people. His characters live on the edges of cities and towns. Some of them face the problems often understood in our society to be particular to Aboriginal men, women and children.
They include incarceration, rejection, intergenerational pain from separation from family, unemployment and poverty. There are also stories about clumsy attempts by non-Aboriginal people to reach out in in friendship. Although well meaning, one can’t help thinking of racism in relationships.
Some of the things I like about Common People
- Tony Birch writes about even the most unsympathetic characters with a compassionate heart which helps the reader to see good in others.
- The language used in these stories, seemingly simple and down-to-earth, is in fact complex and lyrical
- The variety of stories, plots and characters in twelve stories from two single women working in the night shift in an illegal abattoir to a writer who gains inspiration from a special ceiling.
- The way the stories have been juxtaposed so they enhance each other.
I’ve been a fan of Tony Birch for some years. I reviewed his novel, Ghost River (2015) about growing up in the slums along the Yarra River in Melbourne in the mid 1960s and 1970s, and a previous collection of short stories, The Promise (2014). I’m also fascinated by short stories and wrote this blog about them: Short stories as art and craft.