Helen FitzGerald – Ash Mountain
Published by Orenda Books, paperback £8.99. I bought an early release copy of this at the Orenda Roadshow in February 2020.
Helen FitzGerald’s last novel, Worst Case Scenario, was based in her adopted home of Glasgow and was a blackly funny yet slightly bleak tale of a probation officer unravelling at the seams – shortlisted for the 2020 Theakstons Award, it’s excellent and I highly recommend it. Ash Mountain takes us back to FitzGerald’s real home, Australia, in bushfire season – by the way, the cover image isn’t a Photoshopped montage, it’s a real photo taken by a real guy of his daughter looking out of their front door as the sky burned orange from nearby fires in November 2019.
We open with the fear and heat and smoke of a fire making its way fast, so fast, to the tiny town of Ash Mountain in Victoria, and Fran leaving her father at home to search for someone and then sit out the flames in The Monument, a stone tower and local landmark with wide views a mile or so away. The air of suppressed panic in Fran as she organises her father – who is all but housebound after a stroke – and makes her plans gave me chills within a few pages, and there is no way you are going to put this book down until you’ve found out what happens.
Rewind to ten days before the fires, and we get some background filled in. Vincent is driving Fran and Vonny, their teenage daughter, to Ash Mountain so Fran can look after her father after his stroke, with Vonny visiting for weekends in their shared parenting agreement. Also on the scene is Dante, Fran’s adult son, and a couple of elderly ostrichs in large pen at Fran’s father’s house. Never under-estimate what family means to people, however much they may deny it while bickering and sulking.
Small town Australia is beautifully, painfully realised for us in just a few pages, and while it’s in some ways very alien (Lamingtons, curry pies and the Australia Day fete), it’s also very familiar to anyone who has lived in a small town anywhere (gossipy, ancient rivalries, the feeling of disconnection if you left and came back versus the attitude of those who never left). You also can’t turn a corner without bumping into a memory, whether a person or place; whether happy or otherwise.
Through a series of flashbacks, we delve into Fran’s past, including the circumstances of her pregnancy at the age of 15, which resulted in Dante. Going back home means confronting all the things – people, relationships, disappointments, humiliations – you left behind. It also means confronting the you that you were then, with the wisdom you have gained since. Switching between timelines, we see the Fran of the past struggle in the moment, and the Fran of now struggle with the memory of that past moment, as she tries her best to look after her dad, keep Vonny from screwing up and not make fresh mistakes of her own.
Then comes the day of the fire, which is one of the most powerful things I’ve read in years; the reality brought home hard as Fran discovers several burned-out cars – fire spreads faster than you can drive, let alone run. So if the world around you was burning, what would you do? Who or what would you save? It’s not an abstract question for Australians (or Californians), and perhaps we should all think on it. Fran does the best she can in the moment – which is all any of us can do – in the knowledge that she can’t do everything for everyone.
By the end, we feel that despite the devastation, the bush and the town will rise again after the fire, though they will be permanently changed by it. Fran will come out the other side of her personal devastation and rebuild her life. The reader will come through and reach the end of the novel, but will not be the same again.
Ash Mountain is an incredible novel that I simply cannot do justice to in a review – it’s all the more powerful for its plain, unshowy language and its touches of humour amid the pain. I can’t urge you enough to read it, it’s one of my books of this year without question. Bravo, Helen FitzGerald, you’ve created a bloody masterpiece.
You can follow the author on Twitter at: @FitzHelen