There are times when life can become a bit of a blur in crime fiction land, with troubled police detectives, missing children and deranged serial killers all melding into one homogenous mass of evildoing. It’s at such moments that you welcome a little originality – and they don’t come much more original than Helen FitzGerald, the Australian author based in Glasgow.
It is impossible to categorise this writer’s work. She is the author of The Cry, a psychological thriller that sold by the bookcaseful, was turned into a well received TV drama and in 2013 received a five star review here on Crime Fiction Lover. Last year she hit the spot again with a book that couldn’t have been more different, the dark, and darkly funny, Worst Case Scenario – who knew menopause noir was a thing?
Now Fitzgerald is back with Ash Mountain, which is something of a conglomeration of the two aforementioned novels, set as it is in Australia, and with a woman on the edge at its very heart. It’s also beautifully written and very funny, but beware – because darkness lurks at the edges of every turned page.
Fran’s life is at something of a crossroads and she isn’t happy with any of the directions on offer. Then a turn of events sends her to a place she never wanted to see again. Ash Mountain is where she was born and brought up and where things went badly wrong for her. Fran’s father is terminally ill and she has come home to nurse him. It’s complicated, because the tiny, insular little town is also home to Fran’s first born, Dante, who she had when she was just 15. She is sharing the parenting responsibilities for daughter Vonny, who is 16 and not happy about having to spend any time in Ash Mountain – though that’s about to change.
So things are on a bit of a downer for Fran, but she decides to make the best of what’s on offer in Ash Mountain, beginning with small steps to make her father’s days a little more comfortable and varied. Which is where an old baby buggy and an outmoded tablet that once belonged to Vonny come in useful, offering Dad a rickety window on the outside world. The scenes where Fran and her makeshift camera take on the great outdoors in general, and a church service in particular, are laugh out loud hilarious.
But where is the crime in all this, you may be asking? Ash Mountain opens on the day of a devastating bush fire and flitters, butterfly-like, between the 10 days that precede it. A short period of time, but within those 10 days a dreadful wrongdoing is revealed. It’s something that happened in Fran’s younger years and something which has haunted her ever since. And, this being a Helen FitzGerald book, we are cleverly drip-fed details like breadcrumbs on a bird table until BAM, all becomes crystal clear.
This is a most disorientating book and the leaping back and forth between days is part of the reason for that sense of being not quite with it. But another major factor is FitzGerald’s wonderful writing style. She is a hugely entertaining writer, with lovingly constructed landscapes and so-real-you-can-actually-hear-it dialogue but the thing she does best of all is create a little warm and cosy microcosm of life, then throw in a bloody great firecracker of a detail that sends the whole thing off into a completely different direction. It’s so sneakily contrived but the resulting eureka moments may well have you jumping off the reading chair and yelling in surprise/joy/horror/consternation – delete as applicable. I think you can guess that I loved this book and I think you will too. Grab a copy NOW.
Find more Aussie inspiration in our round up of some of the best authors from Down Under. Louise Beech is another author who likes to keep readers on their toes, read our review of her latest, I am Dust, here.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars