Source: Review copy
Publication: 14th March in e-book from Orenda Books
Single-mother Fran returns to her sleepy hometown to care for her dying father when a devastating bush fire breaks out. A devastating, disaster-noir thriller from the author of The Cry.
Fran hates Ash Mountain, 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 to her hometown 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 old 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…
Helen Fitzgerald is a writer like no other. With Ash Mountain she is at the top of her craft. Her writing is blistering; her characters vivid and totally authentic and they take her book by storm. Fitzgerald is an emotive writer but not ever in a saccharine way; quite the opposite. Fran Anderson is a survivor; toughened by all that life has brought her, ready to talk tough with anyone who stands in the way of her and her children, and living life on her own terms.
I loved this character. Returning home with her children, teenage Vonny and her older brother, Dante, to the small town that is Ash Mountain to care for her dying father, her first acts are to make sure he has a grip on what’s going on around him and that he can at least get the small pleasures he has in life. She does it in her own unique way that makes you laugh even as you see what a tough situation it is for them both. He is as demanding as she; both are strident, prickly characters.
She has such a loathing for what Ash Mountain brought her, but she faces her return with determination and she brooks no opposition to getting her own way, even when that riles the people she meets.
The book begins with the impending bush fires that will sweep through the town bringing chaos and leaving horrific devastation in its wake. The reader will feel the full horror of that fire, smell the burning, understand what a truly awful death it brings and Fitzgerald doesn’t flinch from showing us all of that.
We come to understand, through a journey that flits backwards in time, just what Fran has endured and why she has become the person that she is. Returning to Ash Mountain becomes for Fran a revisiting of her childhood and adolescence and makes her face up to her past; confronting it head on even as she races against time to find her children amid the flames that engulf large parts of the town.
Ash Mountain itself plays such a pivotal role in this book. It is the catalyst for everything that happens and it’s spartan and arduous environment is unforgiving. Returning to the town was something she had to do but she takes no pleasure from seeing familiar faces and her memories are tinged with the sour knowledge of her own past where crimes were committed and the perpetrators never brought to account.
Her attitude to the church whose influence in the town is pervasive, but Fran finds pernicious, is tainted by her youthful experiences and as she settles back in, small things bring back memories she has worked hard to try and expunge. A near neighbour and old friend offers some relief; he at least has grown happily into his skin, but with the pleasure of renewing that acquaintance comes more complications. Vonny starts a new relationship and out of the blue, Dante’s estranged father is about to make a re-appearance. NOT something Fran wants to see happen at all.
As her story unfolds and the intensity deepens, Fran will face her demons and tackle the consequences.
Fitzgerald takes head on some of the most difficult subjects in a way that feels personal and so real and makes from this story an utterly raw and completely compelling and dark family drama set against the backdrop of a stifling heat and a burning orange and red sky. Her drama plays out in a way that had my heart pounding and my nerves fraying. And yet she still manages to extract a biting humour from the situation which adds to the realism she creates.
Verdict: Honestly, this is an intense and compelling tour de force. It still gives me goose bumps to think about it. At once fierce and incredibly poignant, it packs a huge punch. It is a towering inferno of a book. An absolute all the stars MUST READ.
Helen FitzGerald is the bestselling author of ten adult and young adult thrillers, including The Donor (2011) and The Cry (2013), which was longlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, and is now a major drama for BBC1. Her 2019 dark comedy thriller Worst Case Scenario was a Book of the Year in both The Guardian and Daily Telegraph. Helen worked as a criminal justice social worker for over fifteen years. She grew up in Victoria, Australia, and now lives in Glasgow with her husband.