4 out of 4 stars
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In her novel Ironbark Hill, Jennie Linnane shows her readers the landscape of an Australian farm town, taking the reader on a bumpy, yet beautiful, ride through the oft arid fields, the turbulent streams, down hills to the awaiting city. Our tour guide is Natalie Chapman, a young woman who turns 16 years old on page one. She introduces us to her family, seven people living in the too small farmhouse that was built by her grandfather: Natalie, her mother, stepfather, grandfather (mom’s father), brother, and two half-sisters. The house is filled with tension due to the contentious relationship between Natalie and her stepfather. We watch as Natalie navigates her 16th year, battling her stepfather, protecting her family, honoring her adored father, and transforming from child to woman.
The Townsend/Chapman family is a blended family in more ways than one. Natalie’s (and her brother’s) birth father, John Chapman, had aboriginal roots, while her mother did not. Her mother then marries a white man and has more children. Linnane doesn’t dive too deep into the racism that Natalie faced due to her heritage, but the hatred and bigotry she faced, even within her own home was threaded throughout several interactions. Her stepfather, Alex Townsend, made it perfectly clear how he felt about Natalie, referring to her with racial slurs. Alex and Natalie’s mother had three children together, one of whom developed the same racist behaviors as her father. I wouldn’t say racism was the overwhelming theme in the book, but obviously it was a challenge in Natalie’s life on the farm. But racism is a tricky beast, it doesn’t have to be thrown in your face to be felt to the core. Linnane gives the reader enough to empathize with Natalie, feel the divide in the household between the white half-siblings and Natalie and her brother, the Townsends vs the Chapmans.
Outside of the farmhouse, Natalie earns her living working for a wealthy English couple in their hotel. She cleans and does other household chores, and has a great fondness for the couple, Mr. and Mrs. Glover. They are kind and generous employers, who take an interest in Natalie’s development and her future endeavors. Mrs. Glover becomes a friend and mentor, teaching Natalie about painting, art, culture. When the sexual chemistry between Natalie and Mr. Glover is revealed, my initial reaction was disappointment and concern that Natalie was making a grave mistake, ruining a trusted friendship with Mrs. Glover, and risking her own safety and security by possibly losing her employment at the hotel. The arrangement is certainly unconventional, but as the story proceeds, it becomes lesson concerning and more comforting. In the Glovers, Natalie finds solace and love and acceptance. The age difference is off-putting, however by the end of the novel, Linnane is creates relationships between the three that seem to work in everyone’s best interest.
Throughout this novel, throughout one year of Natalie’s life, we see the many identities we humans hold. No one is ever just one layer. And this is evident in Natalie’s story. She is sometimes hero, sometimes victim. She is a friend, but also the other woman. She is a daughter, but also her mother’s protector. Linnane reveals Natalie’s flaws, but still manages to create a character that is lovable, someone we root for and forgive.
I rate Ironbark Hill by Jennie Linnane 4 out of 4 stars. Linnane writes with a beautiful balance. She gives the reader a view of the landscape with her descriptive and detailed scenary. She develops her characters into people who are relatable, believable, easy to love, and easier to hate. She gives us conflict and tragedy, resolution and acceptance. This novel is everything I hope for when opening to page one of a new book.
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