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This essay examines the three Yarra River stories in Tony Birch’s short fiction collections. ‘The Sea of Tranquillity’ ‘The Chocolate Empire’ and ‘The Toecutters’ all question the historical inscription of the Yarra that favours the culturally dominant account by placing it in relation to alternative stories. The torsion engendered by this questioning is apparent in the stories themselves. They are simultaneously discussions of class-based social exclusion and counter-stories of settlement; settled places are re-inscribed with meanings and histories obscured by the dominant account of ‘settlement’, which it thus critiques. The structure of the contemporary short story, to reveal a truth buried under the mundane details of life, aids Birch’s purpose. The form enacts a propensity to doubling, twinning and contrasting the familiar and the strange, or being at once in the dominant reality of the settler-colonial culture and, by social imposition, in the situation of the other. Hence, Birch’s stories open into narratives drawn from a number of socially marginalised groups, according to class, gender, geography or age. In Birch’s own account of his disillusionment with the institutionally-based academic writing of the post-history wars environment he speaks of embarking on an alternative project to ‘put meat on the bones of history’, a project which involves turning from the Historian’s history to ‘the way that fiction deals with the past and its role in documenting history’: to bring history and story together (‘Trouble’ 235, 241). This essay traces that process in the three Yarra stories.

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