4 out of 4 stars
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Ironbark Hill, by Jennie Linnane, is the coming-of-age story of 16-year old Natalie Chapman. Natalie lives in the small Australian town of Ironbark Hill with her mother, brother, two half-sisters, and stepfather, whom she hates. The book begins with a young Natalie witnessing her stepfather beating her mother. The seed of hate has been planted. The rest of the book focuses on a single year in Natalie’s life – told in her own words – her 16th year, which the reader soon learns is the most pivotal year in Natalie’s life.
Indeed, sweet 16 is often a pivotal year for young girls, and while Natalie does struggle with the typical adolescent struggles of a 16-year-old – bullying, body-image, family, and sex – Natalie also deals with struggles that most wouldn’t understand. Her brother has a mental disability, and she is the main and often recipient of her stepfather’s drink-induced rage. She loves her mother, but also holds conflicting feelings of contempt for her mother for failing to stand up to her stepfather and kicking him out of the house for good. While she feels a large part of her identity is tied to her father, she barely remembers him, and must learn secrets of the past from her sweet grandfather.
As the story weaves on, issues of race, faith, family ties, and morality are expertly and delicately handled. Though fiction, this could be someone’s memoir. Linnane expertly brings the reader into Natalie’s life. I could see the town of Shannondale shrouded in fog on an early morning as Natalie rode her bike down the hill to work. I winced in pain along with Natalie as her stepfather beat her. I could smell the hungry earth as it drank up the rain that finally fell upon Ironbark Hill – and brought a cleansing that not even Natalie could have expected or hoped for. Once Natalie realizes that her 17th birthday is just around the corner, she has grown up in more ways than one, and almost doesn’t recognize the person she has become.
Although Natalie is the focal character of the book, each character is expertly crafted, and the reader can relate, even in a little way, to each one – including Natalie’s abusive stepfather. Australian and German accents are perfectly captured in Linnane’s writing. And, I found only a few grammatical errors: misplaced commas that didn’t affect the flow of the book at all.
Ironbark Hill was fantastic. I give it four out of four stars. I was truly impressed with Linnane’s skill at weaving tough questions of race, faith, and freedom into a believable story of growing up. I think that just about anyone could find enjoyment from this book, but those who enjoy memoir-like novels and new and refreshing challenges to their worldviews and beliefs will especially enjoy this book.
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