Fran hates Ash Mountain, and she thought she’d escaped. But her father is ill, and needs care. Her relationship is over, and she hates her dead-end job in the city, anyway. She returns to her hometown to nurse her dying father, her distant teenage daughter in tow for the weekends. There, in the sleepy town of Ash Mountain, childhood memories prick at her fragile self-esteem, she falls in love for the first time, and her demanding dad tests her patience, all in the unbearable heat of an Australian summer. As old friendships and rivalries are renewed, and new ones forged, Fran’s tumultuous home life is the least of her worries, when old crimes rear their heads and a devastating bushfire ravages the town and all of its inhabitants…
Welcome to the one of the final stops on the Orenda Books blog tour for Ash Mountain, and be prepared once again to be surprised and entertained by this, the latest book from the excellent Helen Fitzgerald. To wildly misquote Forrest Gump, “Helen Fitzgerald is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get,” and it is a testament to the breadth and quality of her writing that she is undoubtedly one of the most versatile writers I have encountered. Ash Mountain only confirms this further, being a heartfelt and honest account of a fractured family and community who find themselves in a physical and emotional melting pot…
This is an intensely character driven read, set in a small outback community, and the depiction of the relationships between them and their experiences, past and present, lay at the heart of my enjoyment of this book. Fran, in particular, is a mesmeric character, returning to her hometown and seeking to re-establish the bonds and former attachments of her younger years. Fitzgerald is equally adept at shining a light on the intensity of Fran’s teenage experiences, the gaucheness and foolishness of youth. the crippling self-doubt, and then transposing this with her as an adult. There is no question that Fran’s whole life has been overshadowed by the folly of her youthful actions, which were entirely relatable, and I really liked the metamorphosis of her character when the past raises ugly its head once again. Her tiger mother instincts are strong for both her teenage daughter, despite the inevitable ups and downs, and her older son who remained in Ash Mountain, and whose conception by Fran as a teenager, becomes a focal point of the book. As she encounters ghosts of her past and the ramifications of this, and also seeks to move on romantically in the present, Fitzgerald’s portrayal of this woman is never less than rounded and completely authentic. Fran is every woman,
As the narrative is so effectively shaped by the lives of the inhabitants of this claustrophobic community, Fitzgerald has the opportunity to explore a variety of people and experiences, across age, occupation and experience. It’s like a really condensed telenovela, with all the moments of joy, humour, sadness and darkness, reaching a powerful and tense denouement as a shocking crime is exposed and avenged, and the physical threat of a raging bushfire causes death and destruction. Fitzgerald carefully builds the pace between the ramping up of personal emotions, alongside the approaching fire by splitting the narrative into different timelines, and carrying us smoothly between them. As the strands and past and present interweave, this works extremely effectively in heightening the sense of tension and danger. The scenes where the bushfire rage uncontrollably are exceptionally well realised, and Fitzgerald bombs our senses so we can literally feel the intensity and rage of it, the threat it poses, and the havoc it wreaks.
With the versatility and scope of characterisation, that Fitzgerald always seems to achieve, the underlying tensions of this small rural community with its buried shameful secrets, a fluid continuity of timelines past and present, and its dramatic depiction of a seismic natural disaster, Ash Mountain is a compelling and gripping read. Always surprising and always enjoyable Helen Fitzgerald’s books should be a definite addition to your bookshelves. Recommended.
(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)