A year after bushfire devastated the small mountainside town where she grew up, Annie leaves her city life and strained marriage and returns with her young daughter, Pip, to the scene of the destruction. Annie clearly isn’t coping with the lingering effects of the traumatic fire, which happened while she and Pip were staying at Annie’s childhood home, and which claimed the lives of many in the community. It quickly becomes clear that everyone who lived through it, including Annie’s mother and uncle, is similarly struggling to move on, expressing their trauma in myriad idiosyncratic ways.
Complicating Annie’s struggle to rebuild her life is the knowledge that her old boyfriend Alex from their teenage years, for whom she still clearly holds a candle, inadvertently started the fire. Annie is also the focus of both fascination and disdain from the locals after unwillingly becoming the public face of the tragedy – her notoriety thanks to a daring horseback escape through the flames, a dramatic photograph of which made front-page news at the time.
Ache is Eliza Henry-Jones’s second novel dealing with the experience of grief and trauma, and she is clearly an insightful, thoughtful writer on the subject. Her prose is clever and rich, full of descriptive motifs and wry observations. This particularly good line comes when Annie finds herself taking part in a haphazard local Christmas parade: “And she thinks that this is what parenthood is. Being scorched and parched on the back of an eighty-year-old truck while your six year old vaguely enjoys themselves.” Parents everywhere will likely relate.
This is a book deeply concerned with what it means to recover after tragedy and with the healing power of community and place, even when the community and place may also be the source of trauma. One of the book’s greatest pleasures is Henry-Jones’s vivid descriptions of the mountain landscape, both in its lush pre-fire fecundity and in its scarred post-fire desolation.
Ache won’t be a book to every reader’s taste. There really isn’t too much in the way of plot here, and readers who don’t already enjoy this kind of tender, narrow-focused character study aren’t likely to be won over. Some may also find the ending rather pat. But Eliza Henry-Jones’s gift for close observation and emotional nuance is undeniable. DV
HarperCollins, 272pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 27, 2017 as "Eliza Henry-Jones, Ache". Subscribe here.