Fran grew up in the small town of Ash Mountain and vowed never to go back, when she left for the big city. But, when her relationship ends and her father becomes terminally ill, she decides to leave her job and return to nurse him. In the intense heat of an Australian summer Fran will nurse her father, connect with her children, and fall in love. Yet all the time, there is the mounting tension of past secrets bubbling up to the surface and as the temperature soars ever higher, the threat of a catastrophic weather event that will change lives forever.
I hadn’t read any of Helen Fitzgerald’s work before, although I was familiar with the BBC adaptation of her novel The Cry which I found both disturbing and compelling at the same time. Ash Mountain is an unusual mix; part small town comedy, part family drama, part disaster movie. Yet it all works together perfectly. Fran is an immediately accessible character, in fact I’d have been happy to have her over for a bottle of wine. She’s a no bullshit, practical and funny woman. I imagine in the city she was formidable, but her home town is forcing her to be more open and vulnerable. In a small town everyone knows you and remembers every heartache and mistake of growing up. Fran’s growing up was harder than most since she had her first child, Dante, at fifteen after a brief first sexual encounter with one of the boarders at the Catholic school. The insult ‘Mountain Slut’ still rings in her ears. To make things worse,The Boarder is holding his wedding in town this weekend. The same parish priest, is still in residence and will remember Fran’s mortifying confession from all those years ago. Plus, there’s Brian Ryan (The Captain) who she likes in spite of herself, but their future rests on the small matter of whether his daughter Rosie and Fran’s daughter Vonny are starting a relationship of their own. That’s if they don’t fall out over who gets to wear a pair of red Dr Marten boots first.
As the days creep towards the wedding, the mercury rises and the locals are mindful of the weather getting out of hand. The story is told in short chapters that move back and forth in time. We’re aware of what is coming, but somehow instead of relieving the tension it seems to make it worse. We’re constantly aware that these characters have a finite amount of time, before disaster hits. That just as we’re getting to know them, their lives could be in real danger. It gives an immediacy to the novel. However, the thread of a mystery emerges from within the school, when Fran’s daughter Vonny is searching in a store room when she finds a series of boxes. Each box is covered in a collage and she finds one with Fran’s name on. Compelled to look inside, she sees photographs of a teenage Fran in her underwear. She takes one home and when Fran sees them it awakens something. A long lost memory of Sister, the sick room, and something about the blinds? Fran asks Vonny, how many other boxes she saw. She’s horrified to learn that there were dozens.
These characters felt so real, that it was almost like dropping in to someone’s life half way through. It felt that abrupt. I had the sense that they were living this life long before I happened upon them. The complexities of small town life were very well observed – having grown up in a village I know only too well how awkward it is to be around people that remember all your teenage escapades, however embarrassing. For Fran, being that pregnant teenager, with all its shame and humiliation, is something she has to remember every time she pops out for milk. Her tentative feelings for Brian are captured beautifully, but as their girls meet and hit it off straight away they’re unsure about being able to move forward. If Dante is well known as her teenage indiscretion, Fran is very proud of the way she parents Vonny with her friend Vincent. The author shows us how mixed race Aussies are still perceived by some people. When Vonny and Rosie ignore the sexual advances of a few male boarders by the pool, it gets ugly very quickly, The boys become even more interested when the girls begin kissing each other, thinking its a show put on for them. When they realise the girls are genuinely interested in each other they become abusive. They throw a few insults about the girl’s looks but when one of them calls Vonny an ‘abo’, Rosie’s fists start to fly. In the boarder’s eyes it seems the girls are the lowest of the low – local, small town, poor, not interested in them sexually and to top it all one is mixed race. It shows the complex hierarchical structures in Australian society of class, gender and race.
I didn’t know what a ‘fire storm’ was before I read the book, so it was a totally new and horrifying possibility. The term refers to a fire so strong that it generates its own weather system. This can occur as a result of a fierce bombing campaign, such as the one carried out on Hamburg in WW2. More commonly though it’s the result of a bush fire and combines intense heat and flames with storm force winds. The book was completed prior to the recent summer wild fires so wasn’t directly inspired by those events, but the thought of what people and animals went through is devastating. The incredible cover photo was taken at the time of bush fires and really brings home how terrifying it must be to see a sky full of fire. It had an immediate resonance for me with a famous scene from the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Where a fascinated little boy crawls out of the dog door to see the lights in the sky. In some ways that’s what reading this felt like. While, the Catholic Irish background was familiar to me, Australia felt a bit like an alien landscape. Reading this novel was an insight into that landscape, but also the unique culture. Every so often the odd touch of the familiar appeared – like an ostrich called Ronnie Corbett. Yes, the fire is expected, but despite all the measures taken to avoid it, its speed and power is relentless. The fear as it passes through town, taking some characters and leaving others, had my heart racing. However, it also delivers an incredible moment of retribution for one resident which is particularly satisfying. This is a rollercoaster ride of a novel, that rushes you towards an ending, then leaves you breathless.