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Ash Mountain by Helen Fitzgerald – burning the past

An Australian bushfire of the kind that forms the background to Ash Mountain, a novel by Helen Fitzgerald

If the cover image of Ash Mountain doesn’t grab your attention, the opening chapter certainly will.

The artwork shows a young girl silhouetted against a fire that is raging through nearby trees. It’s an image that intrigues because we don’t yet know what relationship she has with the conflagration. Is she a victim trapped inside the building? Or is she an arsonist taking pleasure in the devastation she has caused?

The drama conveyed by that photograph is a perfect set up for the tension of the opening chapter in which a woman runs for her life. She is racing to find her daughter ahead of a firestorm; “a gigantic wall of black and grey and red, a tsunami of smoke hundreds of metres high” that is bearing down on the small town of Ash Mountain.

Fran Collins had left the town as a young girl decades earlier, never thinking she would ever have to experience its numbingly dull, claustrophobic atmosphere and small minded attitudes again. But when her dad suffers a stroke and can no longer cope alone, she has to return.

Little has changed in the intervening years. A hand-painted welcome sign still proudly proclaims the town’s population (867 at the last count); the same wall paper hangs in her old bedroom and the ostriches her dad bought to warn off over-sexed teenage boys continue to patrol the yard. When she heads into the town she discovers the same old faces from all those years ago.

As Fran reconnects with her past, she has to face the traumas of her younger years, including the fumbled one night stand that resulted in her pregnancy at the age of 15. Her son Dante has turned out well, a level headed young man who’s built a good reputation as chef at a local restaurant. But his birth ruined Fran’s chances of a good career, made her the focus of local gossip and earned her an unwarranted reputation as a girl of easy virtue.

Old wounds are re-opened the longer Fran stays in the town. But her personal anger and resentment at the way she was treated by the townsfolk pale into insignificance once she discovers how other youngsters from Ash Mountain were once treated. A history of systematic abuse hidden in plain site of the community. Or did they know but chose to turn a blind eye?

Helen Fitzgerald packs a lot into this short novel. It’s just over 200 pages long but covers three different time lines: 30 years earlier when Fran was a teenager, 10 days before the fire when Fran arrives back in Ash Mountain and then, the day of the fire. Third person narration is intercut with first person accounts from some of the lesser characters.

I found the sudden jumps in timeframe and perspectives confusing at first. It didn’t help that relationships were not clearly explained and some individuals were known only by soubriquets like The Captain and The Boarder. But then the power of the narrative took over as the town’s secrets were revealed layer by layer and we plough deeper into Fran’s troubled past.

There’s are plenty of dramatic set pieces as you’d expect from an author who started off writing screenplays. One of the most chilling for me is one of the shortest chapters where two schoolboys laze about in the grandstand of the town’s playing field, too hot to do anything but smoke and dive into the nearby pool. Suddenly the sky turns red and they a wall of flames advancing rapidly upon them. Escape is impossible but they run anyway.

For counterbalance to the atmosphere of impending doom, Ash Mountain offers a surprising amount of humour. Some of it is absurd but it’s hard not to laugh at “Gamps on a stick”; Fran’s ingenious device to enable her bed-bound father to virtually get out of the house.The construction of jogging. buggy, broom head and large iPad turns out a bit wobbly but her dad can now pop up at Mass and meet his mates at the pub.

I’m not sure how to categorise this book. I’ve seen it described as a disaster novel but i don’t buy that. The fire is clearly a big element of the narrative but the novel isn’t solely about the chaos and devastation it causes. Nor is it a thriller though of course it has the energy and page turning qualities found normally in such books. There is a crime but we don’t get any of the traditional elements of that genre such as a police investigation or judgement and punishment of the offender.

Maybe it doesn’t matter a whole lot what genre it falls into and its enough to know this is a highly engrossing novel of the conflict between past and present, of redemption and forgiveness. It marries a terrifyingly atmospheric setting with an engaging main character struggling to put the past behind her.

Ash Mountain by Helen Fitzgerald: Endnotes

Helen Fitzgerald comes from the state of Victoria in Australia but moved to Glasgow to take a Diploma and Masters in Social Work and never left.

She began writing while working as a criminal justice social worker. Initially she wrote scripts for a series of educational children’s dramas for BBC Scotland but switched to novels out of frustration because her screenplays never made it into production.

Her first novel Dead Lovely was published in 2007. She has published 14 novels to day including her most recent one, Ash Mountain published by Orenda Books in 2020.

Her 2013 novel The Cry  was longlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, and adapted for a major BBC drama. 

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