For reasons unknown I’ve not read Eliza Henry-Jones’ first novel… the very popular and highly praised In the Quiet, but I read an essay by the Yarra Valley-dwelling writer last year in Rebellious Daughters and was excited to receive her latest novel… the aptly named Ache.
by Eliza Henry-Jones
Published by Harper Collins
on May 22nd 2017
Source: Harper Collins
Genres: Literary Fiction
A year ago, a devastating bushfire ripped Annie's world apart - killing her grandmother, traumatising her young daughter and leaving her mother's home in the mountains half destroyed. Annie fled back to the city, but the mountain continues to haunt her.
Now, drawn by a call for help from her uncle, she's going back to the place she loves most in the world, to try to heal herself, her marriage, her daughter and her mother.
Henry-Jones has qualifications in psychology, grief, loss and trauma counselling and completed an honours thesis exploring bushfire trauma in fiction. So there are probably few people as qualified to write a book about the aftermath of bush fires; the post-traumatic stress that comes with fear and loss, and the regeneration that follows. Of course it also helps that Henry-Jones writes beautifully and sympathetically and cares deeply about the people and places in her books.
I follow Henry-Jones on social media so know she’s an avid horse rider and lover of flora and fauna and all of the farm-like stuff that lies outside of the city limits…. ie. things I rarely appreciate.
Henry-Jones doesn’t provide us with much detail of the bush fire which so traumatised Annie, her daughter Pip and the town of Quilly until late in the novel. She deftly ekes out elements until we eventually learn more about the fire which endangered Annie and Pip and inadvertently caused the death of Annie’s beloved grandmother, Gladys – amongst others’. It was a fire that destroyed a town and its residents, testing their resilience beyond what they could ever have expected.
Annie’s friend Rose captures the town’s devastation.
“Up here’s pretty fucked-up now. It used to be pretty grey, you know? I think most places are grey. But the fires, they make everything shatter into black and white. It’s all so extreme. Everything. Moments where people are so beautiful and so strong and so giving, and then the other stuff. It’s bloody exhausting.” p 67
Annie grew up in Quilly and has struggled to settle into city life with her husband Tom and Pip, though she’s lived away from the farm (and mountain) for many years. In the year since the fire she and Pip have both become increasingly agitated and anxious… although 6yr old Pip is (understandably) far worse at hiding the impacts than her mother. Both Annie and her husband Tom are doing the best they can with Pip, but unsure how to heal her ravaged heart and soul.
So, it only takes a call from her uncle to have Annie returning to Quilly for an extended Christmas vacation, with Pip – leaving her husband Tom frustrated at his wife’s lack of consideration and his place in her mind as an afterthought.
Once in Quilly we meet Annie’s eccentric mother Susan, her uncle Len and his wife (and Annie’s childhood bestie) Rose.
There’s an animosity from the locals towards Annie I didn’t entirely understand, but later realised it comes down to a sense of belonging.
In the aftermath of the fires Pip and Annie were captured on film and became the public face / symbol of the town’s trauma. To those living on the mountain Annie is an interloper, but although Annie’s heart remains at her childhood home she isn’t sure where she belongs. Although it’s achingly familiar, in some ways she feels she no longer knows the mountain, that the place has ‘moved on without her’.
She wants to go home, but she no longer knows how to find it. She misses Tom, but not the city. And mostly she misses the mountain that exists in her dreaming. p 110
Henry-Jones does a wonderful job with our characters. I really liked Annie and the novel’s written from her point-of-view (in third person for those who care about that stuff) so we know what she’s going through. Her confusion. Her sadness. Her trauma and anxiety. Pip’s also a wonderfully drawn character and I think Henry-Jones nails the 6yr old’s voice and it’s really through Pip we travel the journey to recovery. And then of course there’s Susan, an artist, far more complex than she could have been and exactly what Annie and Pip need.
Nature, and the bush and its life also form key characters. We learn that when Annie was young she felt the trees spoke to her, and she still likes the feeling of the wood ‘alive’ in her hands as she whittles. We learn of she and her uncle Len’s passion for Lyrebirds and animals: big and small; native and domestic. Indeed, I suspect a lot of Henry-Jones’ own personality shines through Annie and Len (both veterinarians) and Susan, who adopts everything from chickens to pigs to bees.
Henry-Jones writes beautifully and there’s a sentimentality in her writing that is sad and poetic but not at all twee.
I was also enveloped with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia as I passed through the lives of Annie, Pip and Susan. Annie spends a great deal of time remembering her childhood with Gladys, Len and Susan. It occurs to her that her life on the mountain offered a magic she’s struggled to replicate and she wonders what Pip will remember of her childhood.
Similarly I thought back to the events I recall from many decades ago. And it’s the small stuff as well as the moments ‘in between’ I remember, rather than the big stuff, and I suspect it’s the same for most of us.
But enough of my own nostalgic meanderings though…. as there’s a (more serious) underlying message in this book. One of hope and resilience. Much of the book focuses on the aftereffects of the bushfire and of the way tragedy has ravaged the town, its people, the mountain’s wildlife and even Susan’s ‘broken’ house which she refuses to fix.
Henry-Jones does a wonderful job at capturing the devastation and the overwhelming sense of grief.
Their grief became like bottles of liquor clutched in underage hands. They hid it in public and opened it in private, where things were dark and quiet. And after, they slept badly. They rose feeling ill. And the cycle of it repeated itself. p 41
But slowly and surely, there’s a sense of movement. Things start growing. Wildlife starts returning. Positivity emerges and people start healing. Indeed, Annie and Pip’s emotional journey and recovery is very much mirrored by the mountain and its inhabitants.
This delightful book is about people and places and Rose suggests we have one or the other, that people have either a ‘place’ or ‘person’ that grounds them or about which they are passionate. For Len it is the mountain, for Rose it is Len. But is that really true, Henry-Jones seems to be asking. Can we not have both?
This novel beautifully captures everything from love and passion to anxiety and grief. I also think it says a lot about its author and her passion for people, places and her respect for the land. And – most importantly – it left me with a sense of hope.
Ache by Eliza Henry Jones is published in Australia by Fourth Estate, an imprint of Harper Collins and available from 22 May 2017.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.
PS. One small bone to pick with EHJ is her mention (on several occasions) of both Annie (aged 33) and Susan (aged 48) feeling old. I realise they’re kinda wearied but this 49yr old really must protest. 🙂
PPS. How stunning is this cover?!