Ash Road by Ivan Southall

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Ash Road by Ivan Southall

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Possibly more relentless than its subject matter, this tale of threatened children in the face of a forest fire is a deserved classic, and one well worth bringing back from the depths of the 1960s.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: April 2014
Publisher: Text Classics
ISBN: 9781922147493

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The North Wind is blowing. It's churned its way across two thousand miles of Australia, and it brings with it ferocity, and an endless dryness. Above, below, to either side of it, and in front of and behind it, is heat. This is a summer in the early 1960s and the land is suffering above-century heat. Unfortunately, through pure accident, three young lads out camping in the bush have started a fire, and it's getting worse and worse under the conditions that are ideal for it. Although in the leeward side of a large reservoir, the small community of Ash Road would surely suffer if the conflagration were to become big enough to threaten them – and it is, it is…

Meet Lorna, and her firefighter brother and miserly fruit farmer father, struggling with the heat themselves to rescue the crop. Meet Peter, mollycoddled as an only boy can be by the grandparents he's holidaying with. Meet Pippa, Julie and Stevie – the three siblings who should be going on holiday themselves to the beach were it not for Julie flooding the house while everyone else slept. And meet the character of the fire itself, which roils and rolls, acts and interacts, and over the opening pages has so many effects on the thin strip of life that is Ash Road that all that is effectively left in front of it is a community of young people – including the three accidental fire-setters.

I had vaguely heard of this book, but I'll come clean – I only really picked it to read because I grew up myself on an Ash Road. But there is no Ash Road anywhere quite like this. It's clearly a pointed title, for the ash trees that gave it the name are replaced by something else through the course of the book, and what a course it takes. I don't think this classic of Australian children's literature has been filmed, and even if modern visual effects would finally allow it, I still doubt it would be, for it would be too full-on. This is an intense read, and I can understand the mention in the introduction of the 1960s idea of it having too much potential effect on the nerves of children.

If anything the book is too effusive and energetic when presenting the drama of the firestorm that is approaching. But that's only to highlight the qualities of the writing – the fire is described to us perfectly vividly, with such variety and authority and life that it does bear including, as I did earlier, in the characters of the piece. But the main thrust of the book is the tensions between the humans, not least when nastiness and misfortune start to happen, the threat of danger is only a valley away, and the real personality of all the personnel is found.

This could only be an Australian book, for concentrating so successfully on the bush fire subject. I'm gladdened by the introduction also saying it's the most successful of several written since at capturing what it set out to. It could also only be a 1960s book – a world of children made independent by the lack of phone contact, and more cars that are out of use than are available. It also may come across as quite a challenge in some regard – the later chapters that bring the adults' stories to bear bring perhaps too many plot strands to the table, and it is relentless – witness the early extended radio report being as exuberant as the authorial voice with which it’s interchangeable. But it is so vividly memorable that the location of this Ash Road sears itself into your reader's eye so perfectly that for a while no other such place can coexist.

This book is so removed from anything else on the market - certainly I've not read anything that is 'just' 'about a fire', but perhaps for mood, sustained energy and threat and visually impactful locations the same audience could enjoy The Fury: The Director's Cut by Alexander Gordon Smith too.

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