Shadowboxing is a riveting, vivid and very immediate collection of short stories. There are just ten in total, all of around an even length. The stories follow the development of the first person narrator Michael, as he grows up in Fitzroy, a tough inner-city suburb of Melbourne. Michael’s life is surrounded by violence and turmoil. In the first sentence we learn that his younger sister, May, died from meningitis; this death prompts his family’s move to Fitzroy, to a red house, to a neighbourhood of heavy drinking, domestic violence and urban tension.
Shadowboxing is clearly an auto-biographical work. The vivacity and acute level of detail Tony Birch writes with could only stem from first-hand experience. Michael’s love for reading and eventual job as a journalist serve to underline that these stories sketch the development of a writer. Michael always appears a little detached from his surroundings, a little like Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes, as if he knows deep inside he will one day leave his hardships behind. The advice of his Grandmother’s boyfriend is pertinent: “Keep reading, Michael. And read everything that you can get hold of. It’ll get you out, one day. It’ll be your way out, your escape.”
The violence in Shadowboxing is very real. The majority of it stems from Michael’s alcoholic father, Mike, whose presence looms over proceedings with the menace of a dark cloud on a summer’s day. By the penultimate story the father has descended into a hopeless figure, old and unloved, living in homeless accommodation. His destruction is poetic and mirrors the destruction of Fitzroy, bulldozed by developers in the aptly-titled mid-point of the collection “The Bulldozer”.
The brutality of the residents of Fitzroy would be shocking if it were not conveyed in such a matter-of-fact, deadpan, almost journalistic manner. In “The Butcher’s Wife”, a neighbour cuts the head off her abusive husband and deposits his severed body in various locations around the city. In “The Sea Of Tranquillity”, a teenage Michael ends up in hospital after a joy-ride in a stolen Mercedes ends badly; his friend Charlie dies in the accident. In “The Lesson”, where the tension between father and son reaches a gripping pinnacle, Michael is goaded by his father into knocking out a friend in a back yard boxing tutorial. The violence seems to serve no purpose – it is a reaction to the poverty and cramped living conditions that surround the residents of Fitzroy.
The skill of Tony Birch as a storyteller can be viewed in a number of lights. Perhaps his principle achievement in Shadowboxing is to distil his chaotic childhood and maturity into adulthood into ten easily digestible, “key” moments, which ultimately transcend short stories to become more like chapters in a biographical novel. The narrative arc is supplied by Michael’s natural ageing process, which is why there is such a clear, well-defined, narrative. Another important aspect of what makes Shadowboxing such a great read is the closeness of the action. It feels like the stories take place right in front of the reader. The name changes perhaps give Tony Birch more freedom to depict events as they are, therefore giving the stories more force, as there is no need to sugar coat. Ultimately Shadowboxing is a fantastic achievement and I look forward to reading more from its author.
Charlie Baylis lives and works in Nottingham. He reviews poetry for Stride, which is where his best poetry is published. He also reviews poetry and fiction for Neon. His own creative writing has appeared in a number of publications, including: Stride, Litro , Ink, Sweat And Tears, The Cadaverine, Boston Poetry, and Agave. Charlie has been shortlisted for the Bridport (UK) and Pushcart prizes (US). He spends his spare time completely adrift of reality.