4 out of 4 stars
Share This Review
Ironbark Hill by Jennie Linnane is a smartly written “memoir” that is related by Natalie Chapman; Natalie is a middle-aged, Australian woman reflecting on the trials and successes of her life-altering sixteenth year. Natalie and her older brother, Joey, are the half-aboriginal children of Irma and Johnny Chapman. Joey is simple-minded, affectionate, and large for his age. Their father, Johnny, was killed in an accident when Natalie was young, and Irma has remarried a man named Alex Townsend. Irma and Alex had three children, Davey, Shirley, and Robyn; Davey has died in a tragic accident before the opening of the story, however his death drives alcoholism, abuse, and irrational blame that are foundational issues for the family. Additionally, the family is very poor and not having much success running Grandpa’s farm on Ironbark Hill. With these elements as a backdrop, Ironbark Hill is the story of Natalie’s emotional journey into womanhood while issues including racial discrimination, socioeconomic inequality, and mental health.
I thought the story was an excellent depiction of a defiant young woman making her way through tough circumstances. It effectively portrayed the naive decision-making common to a 16-year-old; it was what I would expect from Natalie as she faced adult situations. The adults around her were somewhat inconsistent in their own behaviors, which was the one item that rubbed me the wrong way: As from Grandpa, Natalie is portrayed as the only one who seems to be level-headed. Although it sat wrong with me, it was the correct perspective for the story since the book written from point of view of Natalie looking back over her life and examining her impactful 16th year. We’d like to think that when people examine the course of their lives, it includes some level of objective self-examination. The reality, however, is that everyone sees their life from their own point of view and is the champion of their own story.
Ms. Linnane expertly portrays the family and social issues that impact this story. I appreciated how she leveraged their interrelated nature to express how a single action or event can trigger a multitude of responses. Although not called out as such, I found alcohol to be a key factor in opening up discussions in each of the other areas. For example, the despair associated with the loss of his only biological son causes Alex to turn to the bottle for “comfort”; this results in an inability to run his farm as well as making him unemployable outside the farm. Alcohol also drove Alex’s explosive temper as illustrated by his willingness to physically abuse his wife and stepchildren as well as attack them with racial slurs and mockery of Joey’s mental handicap. Alcohol is also a factor in Bruce's judgment, which triggers the event that launches the Bruce-and-Natalie storyline.
Ironbark Hill is the first novel I’ve read by an Australian author. This certainly lent to the authenticity of the book since the setting is an Australian farm town; I also found there were elements in the writing style that differed as well. There were several words and phrases that I had to look up either because they were new to me or because they were colloquial in nature. I didn’t find this distracting because it wasn’t pervasive, and instead, appreciated the opportunity to learn something new. I’ve always been fascinated by the etymology and evolution of words, especially when those words “grow up” in a distant or removed environment. I didn’t find it dissimilar to reading a British author with their own slang and vocabulary. It was simply new to me and I enjoyed the experience.
This book earns a 4 out of 4 stars from me because it was an excellent story that was very well written with no noticeable errors. I thoroughly enjoyed the complex layers and thought-provoking situations. It had me examining all sides of the story and the factors that contributed to the situation at hand.
I would recommend Ironbark Hill to those who enjoy a strong female character in a coming of age novel. I would also recommend it to those who seek out books from other countries or cultures. There are a couple graphic abuse scenes and an extra-marital affair storyline that some readers would find morally objectionable. I did think these were in context for the story and had a purpose within the story, but others might be turned off by these elements of the book.
View: on Bookshelves | on Amazon
Like KLafser's review? Post a comment saying so!