3 out of 4 stars
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Ironbark Hill by Jennie Linnane confronts abuse in many forms; domestic, sexual, and child abuse all fold into this engrossing coming-of-age story. The violent themes in the novel are drastically offset by picturesque descriptions of the Australian outback and the guarded yet optimistic narrator, Natalie.
Natalie Chapman comes from a poor farming family in the town of Shannondale, Australia, where she lives with her aging grandfather, gentle mother, alcoholic stepfather, and three younger siblings. Her story is her year of struggle as a 16 year-old girl. She leads readers through her search for the truth about her late father and her fight to liberate her family from her abusive stepfather. Though at times Ironbark Hill is dark, Natalie’s story is lightened by recountings of her mentorship as a young artist and her navigation of puberty and youthful love. Through her narrative of events, readers watch Natalie grow into an autonomous woman despite, or perhaps as a result of, incredible strife.
Jennie Linnane writes with refreshing richness and is a strong world-builder. From the beginning, her writing style impressed me; her phrasing was distinctive and avoided cliche. Linnane’s authorial voice, descriptions of land and season, and character development were three of the most enjoyable aspects of the book for me. Throughout the story readers meet an array of characters which the author sculpts into rounded, nearly tangible presences. She also included a number of female authority figures that I admired as I read, who I looked up to as Natalie did. In this aspect, Ironbark Hill may be a story about the strength of women. There are a few notable moments in which Natalie’s story forces readers into heart-pounding confrontations. In a testament to the author’s storytelling abilities, these are expertly tailored to manipulate the reader’s feelings of fear and protection over Natalie.
Natalie’s story is interrupted by frequent reminders of her sexuality and race, which sometimes combine to exoticize her. I strongly disliked this, and don’t feel this theme was combated by the book as it should have been. Additionally, I was disappointed to see the novel encourage and normalize a relationship between a young girl and a man more than twice her age. Readers should be aware Ironbark Hill contains strong adult themes and graphic violence listed above as well as grooming, rape, racism and racist terms, not all of which are dealt with responsibly. As a result, this book is not for those looking for a relaxing weekend read and should only be read by mature adults.
The arc of the story comes to an assuaging conclusion at the close of the final chapter, but, unfortunately, Ironbark Hill ends with a quick, unsatisfying epilogue. Those who seek happy endings may not be put off by it as I was, but the speed and too-perfect tone cause the epilogue to feel undeveloped and disjointed from Natalie’s story. It might have been a four star book without the rainbow ending that contradicts the tone of the rest of the novel. However, the author’s strong command of language, world-building, and character development have enamored me and many others, raising my rating of Ironbark Hill to 3 out of 4 stars. The novel appears to be professionally edited and has notably few errors.
Reminiscent of Willa Cather's 1918 classic, My Antonia, Ironbark Hill is a captivating story that adds to Linnane's growing repertoire. I recommend this novel to readers with a love of prose and pastoral settings who possess a strong stomach for adult themes.
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