Ash Mountain is Helen Fitzgerald’s newest novel that brings the most creative and human characters to leap off the page. With its strong sense of setting and a distinct knowledge of human character, the book will creep up on you and catch you unaware as you know—you KNOW—there is not a pretty ending in sight, yet are compelled to read on and see how it all turns out.

That’s one of Fitzgerald’s talents, getting you to care about her quirky characters. In Ash Mountain, when Fran comes home to her small bushtown to care for her father after his severe stroke, it’s not because she misses the town she’s escaped from that holds some of her most awful memories and secrets.

With her sulky teenaged daughter in tow, escaping from the city job she loathes and a failed relationship is a minor positive factor for the single mom of two children. With her son in the area, she can almost kid herself she’ll be fine here—almost.

Fran picks away at her secrets, told in chapters alternating with a present where the oppressive heat has people do anything for relief. And those secrets will have their comeuppance as Fran is not the weak child she once was, all as she tentatively forges new relationships. When a bushfire starts and surges toward Fran and those she loves, the tension for the reader is almost unbearable.

This has been called a ‘disaster thriller’ and there’s good reason for that, as this catastrophe will change Fran and the town forever, but it doesn’t begin to explain the dark humor of Fran and the real feel of the people she’s created. The scenes with her taking her father-on-a-stick to get him out of the house are worth the read alone.

It’s dark, yes, but with an effusive sense of humanity at its heart that makes this read highly recommended.

(Don’t forget to read the Author’s Note where Fitzgerald describes where the cover photo originated.)