4 out of 4 stars
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What would you do if you knew your loved one was hurting and seemingly unable to help themselves? What if they were a target of repeated abuse? What if you were a mere child and that victim was your mother? Such was the case for young Natalie in the novel Ironbark Hill by Jennie Linnane. The setting is 1950’s rural Australia, and Natalie is one of four children in a dysfunctional home where Alex, Natalie’s stepfather, is an alcoholic. This novel gives an accounting of Natalie’s life from age 16 to 17, the year she identifies as being paramount to her growth from a child to a woman. It consists of a prologue, 24 chapters, and an epilogue.
Natalie is depicted as a brave, independent challenger of authority. She was constantly in a battle of wills with her stepfather, Alex Townsend. The reader finds her to be tenderly compassionate toward her mentally handicapped brother and timid young sister; fiercely protective of her father’s memory and her mother’s honor; and carefully secretive about her home life. To contribute financially to her family, she gets a job cleaning house for wealthy Bruce and Rosemary Glover. Her employment by the Glovers provided sanctuary from the unhappy circumstances of her own home, afforded her opportunity to learn about art from the talented Rosemary, and (unfortunately) led her to an illicit relationship with 35-year-old Bruce.
The most significant theme of Ironbark Hill revolves around alcoholism. Through Alex’s actions, the reader witnesses how alcoholism can lead to desperation, despotism, and brutality. The whole family is affected and suffers from anxiety and disharmony. Other themes include love, loss, secrecy, racism, and poverty. There is also a bit of mystery involved as Natalie is on a quest to reveal the truth about her father’s death.
Author Linanne provides an enjoyable break from the tension by describing a visit from family friends Elaine and Snow with their children Marion and Godfrey. Natalie’s family was temporarily united as they had a common enemy in Godfrey, a thirteen-year-old boy with an unpleasant demeanor. Here we get a glimpse of a more functional family as Alex refrains from drinking and a horrific, yet hilarious, scene plays out with Godfrey receiving what he’s due for his mocking words and inappropriate behavior.
My favorite aspect of this novel was the writing style of Jennie Linnane. She has mastered the art of showing rather than telling. Following is an example of her use of personification of a tree (loc 125): “Over by the shed, ‘Old Lady Nectarine’ had clothed her up-thrusting limbs in a jubilant display of two-toned pink.” She also personified the sun (loc 657): “The sun sank lower spreading translucent fingers out across the plain, clutching possessively to the land it had warmed as though reluctant to leave it to the mercy of the chill moon.” In addition, the author employed a high level of vocabulary which enabled me to learn several new words. Each chapter deliberately reveals more of either the plot or the background of another character. I was easily able to follow the plot and remember each character. In fact, I could visualize the scene and feel the emotions on every page.
As I was reading, I remembered a similar family dynamic portrayed in The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. Both are coming-of-age stories of young girls with alcoholic fathers, mentally retarded brothers, and a role reversal of mother and daughter.
I’m happy to report that the book appears to be professionally edited. I found only one missing comma, one missing quotation mark, and two cases where the chapter number was omitted. Because of the excellence with which it was written, I happily award 4 out of 4 stars to Ironbark Hill. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys coming-of-age stories or stories of real life struggles. Those who are particularly sensitive to abuse may want to stay away. My only recommendation for improvement would be to omit the epilogue and allow the reader freedom to imagine Natalie’s long-term future.
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