- Ash Mountain.
- Helen Fitzgerald.
- 211 pages.
- Disaster Thriller.
- My Rating: Hellyeah Book Review.
Fran hates her hometown, 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 home 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 past 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.
Simultaneously a warm, darkly funny portrait of small-town life and a woman and a land in crisis and a shocking and truly distressing account of a catastrophic event that changes things forever, Ash Mountain is a heart-breaking slice of domestic noir, and a disturbing disaster thriller that you will never forget.
In Ash Mountain Fran Collins, a single mother in her mid-forties complete with her teenage daughter Vonny (only on the weekends) in tow reluctantly returns home to the small and rural Australian town of Ash Mountain. Fran resents being back, Ash mountain is a place that she had escaped from, but after suffering a stroke her elderly father is unable to look after himself and she is left with no choice but to come back and care for him.
With a population of only 867 Ash Mountain is a very claustrophobic and close-knit community where everyone knows everyone else. When Fran returns the town is still the same and it is like stepping back in time, the same town that is still full of the same faces, old friends and old enemies just older, weathered and worn. Fran loves her father, she also loves her twenty-nine-year-old son Dante who has walked his own path in life and who now lives in Ash Mountain too. The town also holds bad memories for Fran, memories of loss and of hurt that linger and that remain even decades later. There are ghosts, people that haunt the town and that walk the streets that Fran wants to avoid, but that she must face to unearth the past and to find out what’s buried beneath.
Ash Mountain starts on the day that a raging bushfire is engulfing the town of Ash Mountain, it also ends that way too with the last chapter bringing the story in a full and flaming circle. The story is told through three different timelines ‘Thirty Years Before the Fire’ when Fran was a teenager in the town, ‘The Day of the Fire’ and then, the third timeline starting at ‘Ten Days Before the Fire’ which counts down the days from Fran’s arrival back in Ash Mountain through to the day of the fire. Fran is the main focus of the story in Ash Mountain, both in the past and in the present as events unfold through her third-person perspective. However, during ‘The Day of the Fire’ chapters (along with Fran) we are given snapshots from the other residents of Ash Mountain allowing for a wider scope across the community as the devastation of the fire sweeps across the town. Having three timelines is never confusing to follow and works well to create a rounded and full picture of Fran, of the other characters, of the town of Ash Mountain and of the dark deeds and the shameful historic secrets that are hidden within the community.
Starting the story on the day of the fire is very clever and it paints a harrowing and striking picture of the horror and the tragedy that is yet to come. By then taking the story back to before the fire, Fran, her family and the rest of the Ash Mountain residents don’t. They have no idea what is coming, the approaching fiery sea of orange and red that will consume the town and you get to see them going about their normal lives oblivious to what will happen and the fate that will befall them. As the reader, you know what awaits Ash Mountain and you know that not everyone will survive the looming disaster. You know that before the end some of the people who you are reading about will lose their lives to the flames and that is a very powerful feeling to have as you turn the pages.
Fran carries the baggage of her past, is flawed, resilient and tough, she is nobody special, she just a normal, everyday person who will be relatable to many. She is blunt, brash, frank in her views, opinionated, forthright in her manner and Fitzgerald gets her sharp and snarky voice spot on. She loves her father but is struggling with caring for him. She has a somewhat turbulent relationship with Vonny, but she is protective of both the often sullen and sulky Vonny and the carefree Dante and together they all form a highly likeable and dysfunctional family unit.
Ash Mountain is populated by a diverse and eclectic mix of characters who each have their own distinct voice and the characterisation by Fitzgerald is stellar. Some are good, some are bad, you see the best of them, the worst of them and due to that, you see them as human. The arid, barren, desolate, dusty and sweltering setting of Ash Mountain is well realised and vivid. With her writing, Fitzgerald does a phenomenal job of starkly rendering the fire, the oncoming inferno where, like shadows engulfing the light, flames engulf Ash Mountain as the town is transformed into a conflagration. Fitzgerald depicts the horrors, the heat, the smoke, the choking air, the distress, the chaos and the havoc, the helplessness, the panic and the fear that the residents feel in a truly terrifying way. The writing is also full of black humour and you will often find yourself smirking and sniggering. There are poignant moments to be found too, moving moments that are hard-hitting and the story itself is fast-paced and written in a snappy way that is easy to read and highly addictive.
At just over two hundred pages Ash Mountain is a short read that packs an emotional heft far larger than its sparse page count should allow. It is darkly humorous, gripping and intense with an ending that leaves a thoughtful and deep impression upon the reader.
Purchase As Mountain by Helen Fitzgerald.
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