4 out of 4 stars
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Reader Review by Skip Schmidt
Jennie Linnane's delightful coming-of-age novel, Ironbark Hill, is a fine addition to the YA genre. Set in the Australian outback in the immediate postwar era, Ironbark Hill follows the life of Natalie Chapman, the dutiful, fiercely proud teenage protagonist whose struggle to both rise above and come to terms with her hardscrabble life lies at the heart of this novel. Protected by her loving mother, Irma, Natalie must deal with a tyrannical stepfather, Alex Townsend, while helping to care for her beloved brother, Joey, and two sisters, Shirley and Robyn. Linnane does a fine job of depicting the day to day, chore-filled life of her protagonist: "Whoever first proclaimed that wealth is an encumbrance to man had never scraped knuckles on a worn concrete wash-trough!"
Told in flashback from the vantage point of her adulthood, the novel takes place against the backdrop of Natalie's 16th birthday. The story is propelled by the conflict between Natalie and her abusive, drunken stepfather. Natalie's refusal to allow Alex to sell her beloved heifer acts as the catalyst for the violence that inexorably follows. We soon learn that Natalie's and Joey's biological father, Johnny Chapman, was a half-aboriginal laborer and Irma's first husband, killed in an accident years earlier. Linnane uses the ghost of Johnny to deftly explore racial themes in Australia in the immediate postwar era, with Alex giving crude voice to the darkest aspects thereof.
But such themes are subtextual here, almost a tangent to the main thread of the book. As a further example of the coming-of-age theme, we discover that Natalie is having an affaire de coeur with her employer, Mr. Glover, even as she is taken under the wing of his wife, Rosemary, who tutors Natalie in the art of landscape painting. Linnane chooses to introduce us to Rosemary long before we learn of Natalie's affair with Rosemary's husband, thereby generating a sense of Natalie's inner conflict over the affair for the reader. Yet it is the affair and its continuation that drive the momentum of the book, helping to propel the story to its inexorable and, for one character, at least, fatal climax.
Linnane's style, while perhaps a bit flowery for some readers, is nevertheless engaging and highly readable. Her prose is liberally sprinkled with Australian regionalisms which may be unfamiliar to the non-Aussie, but in most cases their meanings can be easily gleaned contextually. Moreover, there were no detectable errors or typos in the e-book version reviewed here. Her characterizations are spot-on, however, and this reviewer gives this book 4 out of 4 stars for the authentic characters Linnane depicts in Ironbark Hill. From the Outback-rich lingo of Alex Townsend or Barney, the Glover's avuncular gardener, to the Irish patois of Mrs. O'Rourke, to the patrician, upper-crust tone of Mr. Glover, Linnane does a fine job of capturing the essence of each character in the book. It's this authenticity of voice which informs Linnane's prose throughout Ironbark Hill that gives the book it's verve and dash.
For a sweetly engrossing, first-person POV of life in the Australian outback in the early 1950's, one need look no further than Jennie Linnane's Ironbark Hill.
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