Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 22, 2017

Ache, by Eliza Henry-Jones

Ache is commercial fiction exploring the aftermath of bushfire on individuals and communities.  It’s quite draining to read, made more so by the knowledge that the author has qualifications in psychology and grief counselling, and wrote her Honours thesis about the representation of bushfire trauma in fiction.

The story centres around thirty-something Annie, who shot to tabloid fame by escaping with a small child from the burning mountain on a horse.  (Need I say, this is a classic example of highly risky panic? So many people die trying to escape at the last moment. If you live in, or visit, anywhere at risk of bushfire, including the urban fringe, have a bushfire plan and rehearse it.)

Annie’s grandmother dies, as do other people in the small community. Her mother’s home is ruined, and her daughter is traumatised.  And Annie, who lives and works in the city with her husband Tom, feels the urge to return to the mountain to help her mother and her uncle.  She also needs to sort out her marriage and deal with her own grief.

The characterisation of the child, Pip, is painful.  Quite honestly, if it were not for the author’s qualifications which show that she knows much more about this than I do, I would find it hard to believe that any parent could survive the bratty behaviour of this child and still love it.  I won’t catalogue the things this child does, I’ll just confine myself to the observation that the burden on Annie is exacerbated by the expectation that she should tolerate her child’s appalling behaviour.

What Jones does well is to show how the demands of family can impact almost beyond endurance on a fragile personality.  Annie has a city career as a vet and her husband is a city person.  But she feels she is needed back up on the mountain and so she abandons both the job and the husband and feels guilt about that too.  There is also an old lover vilified for having started the fire, and Annie herself  is the result of a teenage pregnancy and was always closer to her grandmother than her mother, so there are those resentments to deal with as well.  It seems a crowded palette of characters and psychological issues but it’s probably close to real life for some people.

Ache is only 260-odd pages but it seems longer because I found it dreary.  (It feels unkind to admit this because of its sincere attempt to explore trauma).  But I think the urge to show how awful the aftermath of bushfire can be has overwhelmed the author’s capacity to tell a good story, and commercial fiction needs to tell a good story.  That’s the risk an author takes in writing about grief and loss, I suppose, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  Karenlee Thompson’s collection of short fictions, Flame Tip explores the terrible Hobart fires, and some of them will break your heart, but they’re not dreary.  (See my review).

Karenlee, however, really admires Ache (see her review) which just goes to show that the same book can elicit very different responses!

Update, a mere half an hour later:

Well, well, look what Radio National is talking about today!  ‘The evolution of emotion in literature’, that’s what.  And you know what, *sigh* their promo images are all but one of women emoting.   I couldn’t put up with listening to all of it…

Update, later that evening: I nearly forgot: Lexi Landsman wrote an absorbing book called The Ties That Bind which also explores the impact of bushfire.  See my review.

Author: Eliza Henry-Jones
Title: Ache
Publisher: Fourth Estate (Harper Collins), 2017
ISBN: 9781460750384
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Ache


Responses

  1. In my 35 yrs of specialist work with children I imagine the child was bratty before the fire. You wld expect to see some changes but basic personality doesn’t change that much. Perhaps that should have been omitted in such a short book. I felt for the people of Portugal who died in their fires. Australia sure has trained most people here to not leave at the last minute. Make a plan. Sounds like a book I would be interested in but cannot deal with terribly bratty children any more so will probably skip it. Lol🐧🐧🐧

    • My experience as a teacher with children who’ve suffered all kinds of trauma, from war and natural disasters to sexual or physical abuse is that they do need an outlet to express themselves and to process the grief, but that doesn’t mean that there are no boundaries. I’ve noticed that they tend to be better behaved and more calm for the professionals in their lives than they are for their parents. This might simply be that we expect them to behave, and they are surrounded by lots of other kids who are behaving somewhere on the ‘normal’ spectrum. (‘Normal’ is such a loaded term these days!) But it might also be that kids sense a vulnerability in their parents, and they consciously or unconsciously exploit that vulnerability in their parents. Maybe they do it because they blame their parents for not keeping them safe. As I say, I don’t really know, but given the harm these kids can do to their parents and siblings, I think parents need training about how to help their kids without being terrorised by them.
      But, oh dear, I wish you were right about Australia training people to be prepared… but I think that is an optimistic view. There is an ABC program which showed families either in a major storm or bushfire scenario, and these people who ‘had a plan’ made every mistake you can think of. People overestimate their capacity to ‘stay and fight’ that’s in their plan and then they panic and try to outrun the fire, and they don’t rehearse the plan to (a) learn what actually works and what doesn’t and (b) to ingrain it through regular practice so that it becomes an automatic response when the crisis comes. I used to be in charge of emergency planning at my school and despite regular drills each term we always had teachers who made serious mistakes and others who got panicky – even though they knew it was a drill.
      And I know from talking to the kids I taught, that families from my outer-urban school did *not* have plans because they were living in the city. It didn’t enter their heads. Yet they were 1000 metres from national park to the north and 500 metres from bushland to the west i.e. very vulnerable to ember attack on windy days, a catastrophe just waiting to happen…

  2. Reading about bratty children can be tedious …

  3. Ironic, or maybe just sad, that the bushfires in Portugal were in (apparently illegal) plantations of Australian eucalypts. But to your excellent analysis – I struggle with fiction about ‘worthy’ subjects. It’s not that I’m looking for entertainment. For me the writing comes first, characterisation second, and story third.

    • LOL I think many writers struggle with ‘worthy’ subjects. Their intentions are good but the writing comes out dull.
      It’s probably really difficult to do it well…


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