My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Written in 1965, and winning several awards and being reprinted in a lovely edition by Text Classics, Ash Road is a visceral and brutally evocative story of the impact of an Australian bush fire on its rural community.
It starts with a group of boys on holiday from school, camping out in the bush, on their way to visit a friend. A fire is lit one night and in the bone dry landscape, it swiftly gets out of control. We then follow the impact and the route of the fire, switching from viewpoint to viewpoint, as the fire rolls over the rural landscape.
This is a fascinating and intensely evocative book. Southall writes fire and the impact of that fire with a brutal unrelenting skill. There are pages and pages of breathless, intense prose and there are moments when you can almost feel the pages warming up in your hand.
I can see why this is being reprinted. It is so hugely of its space and place that it’s almost like opening a window to 1960s Australia. Snakes swim the creek, sweat beads the brow, and people eke out their existence in a bitterly hard and turning landscape.
It’s also fascinating in how Southall uses the fire as a coming of age device for his characters. There are some who have dated a little bit, as is often with a text of this nature, but there are others which feel so fresh that I was desperate to find out what happened to them. The grandfather, in particular, and the well – I won’t spoil it, but lord I found that a powerful moment.
Ash Road is a book that I genuinely hadn’t heard of, but as I’m trying to diversify into reading a lot more overseas children’s literature, I was pleased to accept a review copy of it – Text Classics. It’s a book that will, particularly for an audience who may not have any idea of the impact and terror of a bush fire, open many eyes and also act as a starter for many cross-curriculum topics. I could see passages of this being studied alongside discussions of climate and ecology – there’s a lot in it that could be used.
It’s a powerful book this Ash Road, and one that’s made me want to read more Australian children’s literature. There’s a part of me that also wants to describe it as almost Kerouacian, but I’m not at all sure about that. I might come back to this after a reread of On the Road and see what I think.