Ash Mountain

Helen FitzGerald

Orenda, £8.99

Review by Alastair Mabbott

Though it was nearly two years ago, it hardly seems any time at all since the BBC’s acclaimed adaptation of Helen FitzGerald’s novel The Cry gave Jenna Coleman’s career a welcome post-Doctor Who boost.

The millions who sat enthralled by that psychological thriller for four Sundays in 2018 could do a lot worse than immerse themselves in FitzGerald’s accomplished and gripping new novel, in which the challenges of a mid-forties woman forced to reacclimatise herself to her despised hometown are juxtaposed against a white-knuckle flight from a natural disaster.

In Ash Mountain, the Glasgow-based author turns her attention once again to her native Australia, where Fran Collins is trying to outrun a raging bush fire, overtaken by panicked kangaroos as red-hot embers rain from the sky and the air is sucked from her lungs. She has been back in her old home for only 10 days.

Fran and her partner, Vincent, have split up after 16 years of the cosy, celibate parenting of their daughter, Vonnie. During an oppressively hot summer, Fran winds up back in the small, tightly-knit community she thought she had escaped to look after her father, whose mobility is severely limited following a stroke. Her 29-year-old son, Dante, whom she had when she was 15, has been living there for years (“Dante was the best thing about Ash Mountain, and everyone knew it”), and is supplementing Gramps’ medication from his stash of reefers.

Fran sets about the old man’s care rather more methodically, drawing up charts of when the various carers are due and constructing a device called “Gramps Smokes a Cigarette”. Project #2 is “Gramps on a Stick”, an iPad attached to a buggy which she can wheel about the town to let him see what’s going on.

She’s trying to see it as the start of a new life, and seems to be quickly settling in. She surprises herself by kissing her sleeping dad’s forehead one night, as she does with her kids. But Ash Mountain holds bitter memories – such as the circumstances of Dante’s conception – and there are reminders of them everywhere.

While the novel is basically structured as a day-by-day countdown to the town’s fiery destruction, FitzGerald slips nimbly through time, forward to the inferno and back three decades to Fran’s teenage years, building up a picture of a town with darkness at its heart. It’s there in a casual reference to how Father Frank took over mass “after Father Alfonzo was arrested”, and in the predatory boarding school boys who arrogantly prowl the town ogling girls Vonnie’s age.

At one point, Fran angrily describes Ash Mountain as “a serial-abused serial-abuser”. “I didn’t get away all those years at all. It was all still here, waiting for me, festering,” she says. But she’s not fully convinced she wants to make too much of it. After all she’s been through in her life, she’s in no mood to feel like a victim again.

Just as the bush can’t regenerate itself without occasional fires – “the smoke would be opening their pods now”, she notes, even while desperately trying to escape – Fran will have to confront the past in order to move beyond it, however destructive the consequences might be, and one can feel momentarily smug for spotting the symbolism.

But the brutal ferocity of the firestorm, when it comes, is so overwhelming that it seems almost incidental that it intersects with the conclusion of Fran’s arc. It’s a metaphor that’s broken free of its place in the narrative, a burst of elemental power that simply takes over and turns the final chapters into a harrowing disaster movie. It’s cleverly and impressively done, giving Ash Mountain the kind of genuinely gut-wrenching impact its readers won’t quickly forget.