Adele Dumont reviews Childhood by Shannon Burns


by Shannon Burns

Text Publishing

ISBN: 9781922330789

Reviewed by ADELE DUMONT


Anyone writing about their childhood must grapple with the intervening gulf of time, and with the strange slipperiness of memory. This is especially so for Shannon Burns, who today lives a stable, contented life in the higher echelons of Australia’s middle class, but whose early years, he now recognises, were chaotic and perilous, peopled by adults who were unreliable, volatile, and sometimes violent. Childhood charts Burns’ upbringing in 1980s suburban Adelaide: he is passed between his mother (his ‘true home’ (88)), his father and stepmother, various relatives, and foster carers. Aged fifteen, he leaves school, escapes his father’s place, and finds work in a recycling centre. Despite all this dislocation and instability, and despite Burns’ well-developed talent for forgetting, Childhood doesn’t read as fragmentary or disjointed: rather, the narrative is sculpted so skilfully that it is never less than propulsive.

In the book’s opening paragraph, Burns mentions his house’s slatted windowpanes, ‘which I can remove when my mother fails to come home or if I’m locked out and desperate to go to the toilet’ (11). This striking matter-of-factness is borne of the simple fact that this world — however troubling or unusual the adult reader may find it — is all the boy knows. Not yet five, he reflects:

I will be told, many times, that my mother ‘sleeps with men for money’, but I have no way of understanding what it means beyond the literal sense: she falls asleep with men, perhaps snuggling. I’m jealous of those men, of the comfort she brings them. (40)

Here we have a boy oblivious to the adult world, and to his mother’s reality, but also, the reader gathers, a boy prematurely exposed to and implicated in that world. Hunger and need and neglect; intimacy and estrangement: all is contained in these two sentences. The passage exemplifies Burns’ achievement throughout Childhood: he writes about his past with remarkable, clear-eyed objectivity, and yet he always honours his child-self’s innocence, subjectivity, and purity of feeling. He never slips into self-pity, nor roundly condemns anyone.

Burns has stated that while for him this story is ‘just my life’, for a lot of readers it becomes a story about certain things (1). This is certainly evident among reviewers, who have characterised Childhood as a memoir about disadvantage, poverty, suffering, and trauma. Many of Burns’ memories read as textbook descriptions of what a contemporary reader might diagnose as instances of abuse, dissociation, and maladaptive coping mechanisms. Yet this sort of psychologising language is notably absent in Burns’ account. This is, of course, in keeping with his child-self’s limited worldview; the boy can only glean how atypical his circumstances are in accidental or oblique ways. Looking in other children’s lunchboxes, for example, he is envious of his classmates’ mothers, who ‘fuss over their wellbeing, who prove their love daily by providing this outsized and richly scented nourishment’ (63). At a women’s shelter, he discovers that ‘remarkably, the mothers are not permitted to hit us’ (126). And when a friend’s father scolds Shannon’s friend for coming home late, the young Shannon finds the scene ‘oddly reassuring’ in demonstrating such obvious ‘fatherly care’ (101). As well as being faithful to his boy-self’s perspective, this sort of narration fleshes out for the reader what ‘neglect’ or ‘poverty’ (or other potentially reductive, nebulous terms) look and feel like in the physical world.

In an extended interview with Peter Rose, Burns mentions reading testimonial literature (such as Primo Levi) and being struck by its ‘coldness of style’ and its ‘willingness to look at things directly’: ‘The language is not overly emotional – it just allows a fairly plain description to hold all the emotional force’(2). Certainly, the stark power of many of Burns’ images is such that they require no embellishment: perpetually hungry, he resorts to stealing food from the dog’s bowl; he soothes himself to sleep each night by banging his head against the floor; when a bunch of roosting pigeons at the recycling factory are exterminated, his hostile workmates tear the dazed creatures’ heads off, ‘forcing him to watch’ (288). Tellingly, the rare figurative language Burns does deploy relates to his foster family’s bull terriers: the animals are good training for a child in his circumstances, since ‘to live with creatures who have sharp teeth and erratic moods requires discipline and skill’ (111). When he eventually begins to disappear into himself, he likens himself to the dog who begins to absorb its own stomach and ‘eat its own shit’ (247).

The most obvious facet of Burns’ sustained objectivity is his decision to describe his boy-self in the third person, in all but the book’s opening and closing sections. This allows him to stand outside events; to write about the deeply personal in an impersonal way. It’s an unusual device, one also used by Annie Ernaux in The Years. In her experience, the autobiographical third person is liberating:  it ‘makes it easier for me to speak, to write. I think I could not have written about everything that happened to the young woman of 1958 if I had written it in the first person’(3). In his Epilogue Burns refers to a similar sense of remoteness from his early years.

Burns’ understated style calls to mind Ernaux’s ecriture plate, as well as the unadorned prose of Edouard Louis. All three writers are defectors from the social class of their childhoods: Ernaux and Louis from working-class France; Burns from the Australian ‘welfare class’ (18). Louis’ End of Eddy and Burns’ Childhood bear almost uncanny resemblances when it comes to their narrators’ outsider-ness and sensitivity as children, and their consequent attempts to project ‘toughness’. Both books include fraught scenes of sexual contact between children; both explore masculinity, sexuality and physicality; both narrators ultimately experience the shock of encountering a more privileged strata of society.

Among Childhood’s most memorable passages are those which explore the boy’s inner self, and his eventual discovery of literature as a source of immense solace. From age ten, he leads a double life: the authentic boy ‘lives in his own mind… never comes out, never gives himself to anyone’ (146). He finds the Russian classics — in their concern with questions of inheritance, betrayal, suffering and redemption — revelatory and ‘astonishingly close’ (314). Reading becomes ‘its own form of intimate human connection’ (27). The flat he moves into as a teenager has no furniture nor electricity, but he is thankful for its proximity to the train station, since it means that at night he can read books by its bright light. Current defences of literature tend to espouse its capacity to foster empathy towards others, or conceive of it as a social good. Childhood’s framing of literature as something more personally precious and consoling is immensely moving. Books become the boy’s surrogate guardian, or soulmate.

The impoverished world Burns paints is one rarely depicted in Australian literature. (A notable recent exception is Jennifer Down’s Bodies of Light, a fictional — yet meticulously researched — story of a girl shunted between foster homes and other institutional care settings). Certainly, Childhood redresses this absence. But more broadly, it troubles — and expands — our accepted understanding of childhood, for those who might presume to associate childhood with protection, freedom, and unconditional trust and love. In the particular setting Burns depicts, children can be regarded as burdensome, or even punitive: of himself, he writes ‘I am what happens to people like my mother’ (117). Burns’ account complicates, too, our understanding of motherhood, and maternal love. Mothers, according to Burns, are children’s idols, and synonymous with love. Fathers, conversely, are ‘comparatively replaceable’ (an echoing of Coetzee’s description of fathering as ‘a rather abstract business’(4)). The status of mothers leads Burns to draw this unsettling conclusion: ‘A child fears losing his mother more than the violence she might inflict’ (352). As ever though, Burns with-holds judgement of his (or any) mother: his was never cut out for such a ‘godlike existence’ (355); and mothers, he says are, in the end, ‘prone to all the frailties and vulnerabilities common to us all’ (354).

Childhood subverts the standard journey of a bildungsroman: in one sense, the protagonist does journey from innocence to maturity, but in another, he is robbed of the trappings of childhood that most in Australia take for granted, and exposed to the sort of bleak truths and hardships that even adults in this country might never fathom:

As far as I can tell, adults are compelled to do the most improbable and destructive things imaginable, and it’s their children’s job to come to terms with this however they can. (125)


1. The Bookshelf, Radio National, 28th October 2022.
2. The ABR Podcast, 12th October 2022. Burns stresses that the influence of testimonial (e.g. Holocaust) literature here is strictly stylistic, not thematic, but ‘if these writers could go through much more horrific experiences and come out and write about it in that way, then I should be able to do that as well’.
3. The White Review, Interview with Annie Ernaux, Issue 23, October 2022.
4. J.M.Coetzee, Disgrace.

ADELE DUMONT is the author of No Man is an Island. Her second book, a collection of essays exploring mental illness, is forthcoming with Scribe in 2024.