We’re going to start at the beginning, and for this book that means the front cover. Helen FITZGERALD ash mountain it says, as though the mountain is some innocent little hillock and not the backdrop to a national disaster. There’s a little badge that refers us to another of Fitzgerald’s titles. There is a photograph, from the 2019 bushfires that ravaged Australia, of a girl silhouetted against fire and devastation. And there is an innocent little question, ‘What would you save…?’ and it is this question that bugs me throughout this book.
The question (complete with its ellipsis) hacks away almost from the off, because in the first few pages we know that Fran, the main protagonist, is running for her life, aware of the risks being faced by her father (and his ostriches) and her daughter. The question implies that Fran has some agency, that there are meaningful choices and that even if not everyone makes it the most precious elements can be preserved. And we are asked ‘what’ and not whom we would save which makes it seem quite easy.
But Fran doesn’t have a choice. She has barely had a choice her entire life. Choices in the tiny town of Ash Mountain are made by the clergy and the rich, and their allies: narrow-souled gossipmongers. After some time away from the town, Fran is returning, to be a carer for her father. She brings her daughter, Vonny, with her; her son Dante already lives in the town. We feel part of this family very quickly, and we are happy to be part of it. In just over 200 pages, Fitzgerald weaves us through a number of different timelines: the day of the bushfire, the ten days or so preceding it, and the events of thirty years previously the ramifications of which deny the premise of our protagonists’ agency over their lives.
Fran is a brilliantly-created character. We like most of the characters that we’re meant to like and we are rooting for Fran and romantic interest ‘The Captain’. There is a self-deprecating, matter of fact rhythm to the prose – especially that presenting the story from Fran’s perspective. Fitzgerald seems to have a particular love presenting the absurdity of everyday life – and of bathos:
‘You’re being daft.’ Vincent hugged her. ‘I love you. I’ll always be here for you.’
He left for Melbourne a minute later.
There is plenty of comedy and warmth, against the odds (a scene about cheese gave me some extreme giggles) but we know that tragedy of some kind is imminent – whether to do with Gramps’ health or from fire. It’s hard to relax, among the smalltown homophobia and antagonism and yet Fitzgerald manages to get us to do so. And then we begin to understand what was going on at the school. We already knew there was bullying but what we didn’t know about was the industrial scale of abuse organised by the adults with Fr Frank (the so-called ‘good Father’) at the centre of it all.
The final chapters, which describe the chaos and destruction of the peak of the bushfire, present us with horror and sadness which is impossible to measure, and yet it is described in a way that is some ways gentle and almost slow-motion. There are moments of farce, as an entitled bride and groom insist that their wedding continue as the sky turns different shades of red. But the final scene to involve both of Fran and Frank involves every tool in the storyteller’s kit: Fitzgerald wrenches our hearts out and does as she pleases with us. We have almost as little agency at this point as her characters.
This is not a long book, but it manages to consider love, loss, forgiveness, redemption and the age old battle between good and evil, however we define it. Start at the beginning, with the front cover. I can’t promise where you’ll be by the end.
Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy and to Anne Cater for the invitation to kick off the blog tour.