Tony Birch – Shadowboxing

Michael’s father isn’t happy about the colour of his house but he’s delighted at returning back to his old stomping ground. A death in the family saw his father decide it was time to move back to his hometown. He’s unable to have any reminders of the daughter he’s lost.

Shadowboxing contains ten interlinked stories of Michael’s experiences growing up in Melbourne. Each of the stories work as single entities but together they tell a compelling story of what this young man has experienced. It’s told as fiction but it comes across as autobiographical.

Michael’s father teaches his son how to box and the book conveys the feeling that it’s really his father an opponent is fighting. His father is tough, pushing Michael to punch harder and follow through on his teaching. Boxing is a sport I have a great deal of passion for but Michael is treated badly here and violence is something that’s all too common at this time.

Shadowboxing has scenes of harrowing domestic violence. It happens frequently, is brutal and people even watch it happen on the street. Michael himself is unsure when he hears the sound of someone being abused if it’s in his house or beyond.

Women are treated absolutely appallingly in these tough working-class neighbourhoods. Michael learns about abortions being carried out locally and the desperate situations women find themselves in. His mother explains to Michael that people have to take certain measures of they men they have to endure. It seems to be a time almost devoid of passion or love between spouses. Michael is shocked to hear his father refer to his old home as ‘a house of love’, somewhere full of women drinking tea of a night and telling stories. It has now been brought to the ground like many others with a bulldozer.

There’s not much happiness in his childhood, even the exuberance of some thrilling rides in cars is quickly met with disaster. The happy figure of the local Santa at Christmas is found in poor condition at another time of the year.

Later, things do work out somewhat better for Michael. The figure of Jack is a comforting one, a man that teaches him the value and importance of reading to give himself the possibility of another life. His grandmother and Jack live in a house of warmth, their relationship carried out in private even though many know it’s happening.

There’s even a form of redemption toward the end, with Michael back seeing the father again and realising he’s around the same age now as his father when he went into psychatric care. There’s tenderness here, with Michael looking after his father, cutting his hair and ensuring he has smokes.

Shadowboxing is a beautiful piece of work. Tony Birch doesn’t waste a single word in telling these tales of people moving through hard times filled with grief and suffering with a quiet grace. It’s a book that will surely resonate with a great deal of people and deserves a very wide audience.

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