4 out of 4 stars
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The cover of this book is destined to scream, “Nonprofessional!” until it's redesigned. What's inside, however, is a conceding of the very popular adage, 'Never judge a book by its cover.’ Under it awaits a story told in a first-person narrative that a perceptive reader is not likely to easily forget. IRONBARK HILL by Jennie Linnane, is moving, sincere, elicits chuckles, and hangs you over a cliff at times. It is a novel unpretentious in its presentation of life in a well-delineated slice of rural Australia. Though just 207 pages, IRONBARK HILL sweeps magnificently through the human capacity to be rational through hurt, through pain, through the anguish of trepidation, and ends an illustration of fatalism: a literary gem.
It is a simply structured story of Natalie Chapman, a mixed-race Australian female whose mother is white and whose dead father was an aboriginal (derogatorily referred to as an ‘Abbo’), told in an easy-to-read chronology with well-structured flashbacks. The narrative begins with Natalie as a teenager and ends when she has matured into a comfortable adult life with more satisfaction than regrets. Between the first flashback to when she was a child who, in fear, dared to scream at her stepfather, Alex Townsend (a frustrated, functioning alcoholic) to stop him from hitting her mother to the latter parts of her life as an elderly art teacher, she tells a riveting story set, majorly, in a house with her brother Joey (a Firestarter), sisters, her mom, her lovable granddad, and a stepfather she despises and prays for his demise. From Alex’s point of view, the feelings are mutual. Natalie happens to be the daughter of the dead ‘Abbo’ Johnny Chapman, the man who won Natalie’s mom’s affection before him. The resentment between Natalie and her stepfather fuels the plot with her bent on thwarting him in in his every move to subjugate her with sheer physical force, highlighted by a confrontation that ends with him beating her, brutally, with a leather belt.
As for the writing itself, Jennie Linnane is an author in full control of her literary crafting. Her prose is graphic:
‘Grandpa’s old body was besieged by a legion of new distresses, and he took up his winter position near the stove. Mum worked around him, asking him to lift one foot and then the other while she swept—always attentive to her father’s every need.’ (Chapter 24: ALEX)
Her prose at times is witty:
‘Thirteen-year-old Godfrey, a keen advocate for the conservation of human effort, sneaked off to hide behind the peppercorn tree where offensive, hand-soiling chores would not frighten him.’ (Chapter 13: THE VISITORS.)
The writer’s voice is also sweetly lyrical without being over-descriptive for the sake of being descriptive and soppy. I savored her prose as I would John Steinbeck's:
‘The lonely gravel road that stretched and twisted across the hinterland of the shire like a brown reptile drew its travelers from the scattered hamlets of the western plains and carried them over the peak of Ironbark Hill. Onward, downward the road took them, through pine forests, past fertile dairy farms dotted with black-and-white Friesian cattle, and into the well-ordered nucleus of Shannondale.’ (Chapter 4: RIVERVIEW.)
IRONBARK HILL for me, represents the glory and timelessness of good storytelling. Permit me to repeat: Though just 207 pages, IRONBARK HILL sweeps magnificently through the human capacity to be rational through hurt, through pain, through the anguish of trepidation, and ends in an illustration of fatalism: a literary gem. I recommend this novel for every reader who seeks a story that represents the strength of the human spirit and the persistence of hope. I give this book 4 out of 4 stars.
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