University of Queensland Press, $29.95 pb, 304 pp, 9780702253775
With Ghost River, Tony Birch returns to a world he has delineated over many short stories and in his first novel, the Miles Franklin-shortlisted Blood (2011): the world of adolescents living on the margins. Invariably in trouble and in unstable family environments, the adolescents in Birch's fiction tend to find in their marginal status a degree of freedom. They use this freedom to explore what he has described elsewhere as 'landscapes of abandonment'.
The landscape of abandonment in Ghost River is one particularly close to his heart: Melbourne's Yarra River as it was in the late 1960s, winding through the working-class suburbs of Collingwood and Fitzroy, poisoned and largely ignored, and being further debased by new construction projects such as the South Eastern Freeway. Way past its prime as a site of leisure, and as yet untroubled by the busy bicycle paths that line it today, the Yarra at this time was the realm of the homeless and the odd local boy like Birch, or in Ghost River, local boys like Ren and his new best friend, Sonny.