Book Review: Common People

Genre: Short Story, Realism
Publisher: UQP

Tony Birch is one of Australia’s leading writers, the sort who can make magic from even the most seemingly mundane of existences. With a love of writing about the everyday, down to earth stories of daily life, it’s not surprising that Birch has a gift for creating characters that, whether their actions are positive or negative, it’s incredibly hard not to empathise with them.

In his latest collection of short stories, ‘Common People’, Birch brings poetry to the everyday, making it hard not to wonder about the lives of those we so easily wander past without noticing.

These aren’t the kinds of stories that come with the promise of happily ever after, though each character is searching for their own version of it. Instead, these are stories as they exist in the real world- stories with far fewer knights on white horses, and far more struggles and stumbles on the path towards freedom, or even survival.

And yet, though there are no neatly tied endings, it’s hard not to love these stories, and especially the characters that inhabit them. These aren’t your bog-standard, cardboard-cut out characters. Instead, they’re lovingly, and respectfully, drawn upon the page. And though we may not share their experiences, at least not always, through it all, the characters are relatable, empathetic, and utterly compelling. For good or for ill, we’re with these characters in defining, if at times mundane, moments.

There are elements of casual racism in ‘Common People’, glimpses into the ugly side of an often whitewashed society. Birch wields such moments carefully, knowingly, from the perspective of someone who has had to grit his teeth and smile politely through such moments. Within that racism lies a subtle kind of horror, a reflection of Australia’s past that can’t help but send a shiver along the spine if contemplated too long
This isn’t a quick, mindless read. Instead, it’s the sort that’ll make you think- possibly even make you cry- and the sort you come away from feeling rather changed. It’s hard not to keep coming back to elements of ‘Common People’, whether it’s the beautiful use of language, or the sense of poking at a wobbly tooth even though it hurts. It’s hard not to return to those darker moments, to contemplate the living history of Australia and how much change is still needed.

No, this isn’t a quick read. But it’s a compelling, engaging, glorious one. If you like your storytelling with warmth, compassion, and wit, you’re going to love ‘Common People.’

‘Common People’ is published by UQP and is available at leading retailers.

Rating: 5 stars

Review by Kylie Thompson

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