5 out of 5 stars
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Review Ironbark Hill, by Jennie Linnane
“The Ugly Stepfather”
This book is about the destruction of a family by the scourge of alcohol addiction from a different perspective, that of Natalie, the stepdaughter. This man is the antagonist in the story showing few if any redeeming qualities. Occasionally Grandpa may remark that the stepfather wasn’t so bad when he was young and sober, but none of that is demonstrated. Instead, his character is one-sided, feared and hated by Natalie. As the story continues we learn of her resentment so deep that she thinks, dreams and plots revenge.
In the beginning we are told that the storyteller is an adult, a schoolteacher who is looking back on her childhood growing up in a dysfunctional family. The location is a farm on Ironbark Hill near a small village in Australia.
Not only is Natalie Chapman physically and verbally abused by her alcoholic stepfather, she also suffers from poverty, discrimination, and bullying due to her part-aboriginal heritage. At first we are not certain why her stepfather hates her so much, but later it becomes clear.
The author writes in very descriptive language. I did not mind that her writing is sprinkled liberally with adjectives and adverbs. Unlike some other writers, I found her use of language fitting for the scene. For example, in one scene Natalie is leading a Jersey heifer up a path. The author writes: “Boronia bushes had budded up for spring, the wattle was already a golden blaze, and occasionally, a kangaroo or a few wallabies bounded across the path … I, her unworthy betrayer, made no comment, but rubbed the velvety neck and leaned my head sorrowfully against her warm, leather-smelling flank. Now, nearly home, there was nothing to distract my reproachful thoughts. I sank into a mood of the most profound depression …”
There are several hilarious scenes and some that are terrifying. When author, Linnane, applies her considerable writing chops to describing a heartbreaking or frightening family scene, our empathy is profoundly aroused. Likewise, when Natalie manages to extract revenge upon her tormentor, we rejoice with her.
The story was a bit slow getting going, but once I got into it I was hooked, compelled to keep turning the pages to learn whether Natalie would survive her antagonist, her step-father, whether Grandpa would ever tell her the truth about her real father, whether her handsome but retarded brother would be caught by authorities, whether the mother would ever stand up to her husband, whether Natalie and her lover would be discovered, and so on.
Natalie’s mentor is a prominent and well-to-do lady in town who employs Natalie as part-time household help. This woman is an accomplished artist. She takes Natalie under her wing to teach her to paint. And so we are treated to some scenes of the two of them, out-of-doors, painting landscapes. Natalie admires the woman and aspires to become an artist and teacher, as well.
We learn, in the epilogue, whether that came to pass, as the author neatly wraps it up, bringing us back to the present day and Natalie’s life since her childhood. We are also told of the outcome of the other family members.
Five stars out of five.
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