Book Review: John Kinsella’s Old Growth brazenly explores the complexities of human behaviour

In his latest collection, Perth author John Kinsella creates a uniquely Australian text that drops the reader seamlessly into the turning points in the lives of men, women, and children.

Old Growth offers twenty-seven short stories set in recognisable West Australian landscapes from suburban Perth to dusty bush terrains and empty rural pubs. Kinsella’s language is humble and poetic, and he writes with a familiarity that makes each of his characters and their respective backdrops fiercely realistic.

Each of the stories take place in mundane everyday settings, as we read of shopping centres, truck stops, small towns and classrooms. This gives way to the idea that pivotal moments in your life occur when you are least expecting them, playing on the horror of uncertainty and the unexpected.

A common thread connecting all the characters in Old Growth is the shared experience of isolation or alienation; a child builds himself a new world away from the family he cannot connect with (Tunnelling: A Backyard Story); a woman’s mental illness leaves her estranged from others (The Engine Room Cure); while a young girl is ostracised by her local community because of her faith (The Shopping Trolley). Despite this isolation, each one of Kinsella’s characters still yearns to find something they can make a connection to, whether it be to their family, a lover, the land or an old memory.

In the titular story, a widowed farmer faces great consequences when he burns off an old wandoo bushland for his own pleasure to settle a grudge with his late wife. The destruction of habitat and the power of nature triumphing over humans is a common theme throughout the vignettes and stems from Kinsella’s roots as a strong political environmentalist. His passion for the environment is evident in his poetic writing (“the magnificent wandoos that held the sunset cold and warm at once in their powdery barks”) and creates a haunting tone throughout Old Growth.

The book is filled with tales of broken families. Two young boys leave their mother to visit their estranged father (Fried Breakfast on the Road), a pair of brothers follow a trail of cards to deception (Pack of Cards), and a child must take on his father’s role during a long cold winter (The Woodshed). The characters within these stories are all pubescent and on the cusp of becoming adult. Kinsella thrusts these teenagers abruptly into adulthood, exploring how family forces impact upon children in their vulnerable years.

The anthology is a dark one, with infidelity, Islamophobia, assault, and grief being present within its pages as it brazenly explores the complexities of human behaviour and emotion with pathos and wonder. While Old Growth is not a truly uplifting read, it is an enlightening one that gives its readers an insight into internalised struggle and the duality of human beings.

Old Growth is available now through Transit Lounge