Wednesday, March 3, 2021


ASH MOUNTAIN by Helen Fitzgerald (Orenda Books, 2020)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

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 ...

I've become a big fan of Helen Fitzgerald’s storytelling in recent years. Of course she came to far greater prominence a couple of years ago with the broadcast of the smash hit BBC drama The Cry, based on her emotionally devastating book of the same name (screened on the ABC channel in Australia), but she's written plenty of terrific novels before and since. 

There's a freshness and originality to Fitzgerald's crime writing, a distinctive mix of dark issues, lighter moments, and achingly real characters. After several sparkling standalones set in Europe, ranging from explorations of social media shaming to a menopausal parole worker opening a Pandora’s Box of unintended consequences, the Glasgow-based Australian 'returned home' in this superb novel. 

ASH MOUNTAIN is a wonderful concoction of family drama, rural noir, and disaster thriller. 

With her life going awry on several fronts, Fran Collins has reluctantly returned to Ash Mountain, the hometown she escaped long ago. A single mother who sees her teen daughter on weekends, Fran hates her city job, her relationship seems a goner, and her father - who still lives in Ash Mountain - has had a stroke. He's not the only family connection in the tiny town of less than a thousand people, not to mention friends and otherwise who remember Fran from years gone by. Memories, and secrets. 

But as a bushfire kindles and begins to rage towards Ash Mountain, old wounds are clawed open. 

Fitzgerald has delivered another wee gem of a tale. She smoothly shifts readers back and forth across multiple timelines: the Day of the Fire, Thirty Years Before The Fire, and the ten days leading up to the fire. The jumping around could faceplant in lesser hands, but Fitzgerald nails it, stoking the tension and building our fears and care for the characters - Fran and others. There's a fascinating cast, and plenty to keep readers interested. I tore through ASH MOUNTAIN in an afternoon. It's a one-sitting kind of read - pacy and layered. A vivid, atmospheric tale from a master storyteller, that packs a wallop. 

Highly recommended. 

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed Kiwi lawyer who now lives in London and writes for magazines and newspapers in several countries. He’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at festivals on three continents. Craig's been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, McIlvanney Prize, is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. His book SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was published in 2020.

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