As four friends are about to set out in their canoes in James Dickey’s novel Deliverance, the narrator says: “I could hear the river running at my feet, and behind my head the woods were unimaginably dense and dark; there was nothing in them that knew me.”
Based on the Coosawattee in Georgia, the river is there as both bleak and luminous connective tissue that binds all action with social and moral ramifications. This remote rural water course is always there, as soundtrack and backstory to every detail.
Rivers can act as counterpoise to a series of permanent or developing situations. When aligned cleverly with and in contrast to the narrative they can achieve a character-like status.
The Yarra, in Tony Birch’s Ghost River, while largely suburban in location and immediately accessible, works in a similar way to Dickey’s river – an influential presence throughout the novel. It is there, winding through local geography and folklore, and attracting a curious human element to its banks and flow.
The destruction of natural habitat (in Deliverance it is the imminent damming of the river; with the Yarra it is the beginning of the Eastern Freeway) and the geography of the Wurundjeri people creates a stark environment for those drawn to live a rudimentary life on its banks.
Birch has created a tense, rich narrative in which two boys, Sonny Brewer and Ren, become central, compelling figures. At odds with school, family and the wider community, they seek refuge in and around the river and (in Ren’s case) an obsession with birds and sky.
Birch is a very fine imagist, and his deft touches when describing the boys’ interactions with the natural world, especially, are masterful:
The mighty gum trees lining the riverbank rose above him. For a moment he was sure he was flying and that he would never touch the water. He looked down at the exact moment he shouldn’t have and smashed his face against the surface. Water shot up his nostrils with a rush, his eyeballs felt like they’d exploded and the river felt like ice against his skin. As he plunged towards the bottom a belt tightened around his lungs. His feet hit the muddy silt of the riverbed and he pushed off as best he could. Looking up, Ren scrambled towards the light, desperate for air.
Ghost River is part coming-of-age story and part history of the inner workings of Melbourne. It is a portrait of lost and regained childhood, of spiritual awakening and of tough encounters. Hard love.
It is a beautiful novel, and Birch’s dialogue makes his characters’ conversations sound effortless and utterly genuine. They speak to each other in ways that seem culturally and emotionally accurate, and this is especially so with regards Sonny, Ren and the vagrant men they encounter on the river. These unlettered lives and the ways they are defined, through talk, create a verisimilitude that is captivating and rarely seen as inauthentic.
Exceptions can be found in the (too brief) interactions the boys have with Della, the daughter of a fierce lay preacher. Della is not given much page-time, and thus feels ill-conceived, her presence fleeting and teasing. Given that she appears early on in the story, there is a sense that her character was neglected, and thus she appears peripheral and one-dimensional.
This is a minor flaw though, as this generous, challenging story is filled with memorable, indelible scenes and situations that Birch imbues with humour and tenderness.
It’s testament to his skill that he’s able to take a brooding situation and imbue it with a lightness of touch that saves the story from being overburdened with sadness or anger.
An example of this is when Ren and Sonny are visiting Sonny’s uncle Rory in hospital. Birch has given the setting an exactitude and resonance that is potently real and distressing, while simultaneously painting a scene that invites a spark of hope.
The spectres that haunt Ghost River are real and imagined. There are dead people, of course, yet the land itself is eulogised in lyrical, deftly crafted ways that eliminate the potential for sentimentality and cloying emotional detail, the enemy of much writing.
In a powerful scene where the river has broken its bank, Birch deals swiftly with Della’s father, the tyrant Reverend Beck, while evoking a sense of menace:
The moon broke through the clouds and the light bounced off the foaming caps of rapids that had formed below the falls. The river was about to encircle the wheelhouse. A rifle-cracking sound whistled through the air as an upturned tree, bigger than a house, careered over the falls, snapping branches off as it cartwheeled over the rocks ... Ren saw Reverend Beck surface near the middle of the river, his mouth wide open, snapping at the air. The uprooted tree closed in on him and scooped him up in its branches as if catching a fish in a net.
The Yarra in Ghost River forges a powerful link between the two boys and those who live beside it, yet it also provides a running social commentary on community spirit and attitudes of the time. The river is a conduit for storytelling, change, and adventure.
As the novel concludes we are left with a series of scenes that act as wide-angled, long exposures, and also snapshots of people and landscapes that appear slightly out of focus. Tony Birch has staked his place at the forefront of our novelists. His sharp eye and ear for the nuances and complexities of speech and human behaviour, under extreme emotional pressure, make his second novel a brilliant, compelling read. DL
UQP, 304pp, $29.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 24, 2015 as "Tony Birch, Ghost River". Subscribe here.