Expected publication: 1 June 2017
Months after the fires that almost claimed their lives, Annie and her small daughter Pip are still plagued by nightmares and flashbacks. Even though the papers hailed Annie a hero, their front pages all showing the dramatic photo a woman galloping her horse through a blazing inferno, clutching her child in her arms, Annie knows that it wasn’t that simple. It was her fault they were in the path of danger that day. Annie, who had grown up in those hills should have known better.
Escaping back to her city life and into the arms of her bewildered husband, who cannot possibly understand the trauma Annie and Pip have been through, may have put some geographical distance between her and the scene of the horror, but it hasn’t been able to erase her memories. Annie knows that she has to go back to the hills she both loves and fears. The place where she grew up, went to school, first kissed a boy. The place where she nearly died. So despite her husband’s advice, she packs up the car, bundles up Pip and sets off for the hills to confront her worst nightmares.
Ache is a beautifully written book by an author who clearly understands the aftermath of trauma and loss, and who sensitively explores the issue through the eyes of her main protagonists: Annie, the young mother, who has left her home in the hills to pursue her career as veterinarian, but whose heart still belongs to the country. Pip, her six-year old daughter, who hides her trauma and fears by acting out. Susan, Annie’s mother, an eccentric artist who has retreated into her lonely cabin to bake cupcakes, unable to paint or move past the event which cost her mother’s life. And the bewildered Tom, Annie’s husband, who looks on helplessly as his wife and daughter battle their inner demons, unable to get close to them. Although the story is narrated by Annie, we get to know each character intimately – their pain, their fears, their inner turmoil.
As Annie returns to her hometown, she must not only confront her own demons but also those of the town’s inhabitants, people she has known all her life. It is this portrayal of a small community rocked and split apart by tragedy where Henry-Jones’ real talent shone through for me, perfectly capturing the dynamics of people touched by trauma and death. Having lived through a real-live natural disaster myself in the past, some of the things she describes hit very close to home. There were those people who pulled together, and those who fled. People who exploited the tragedy for their own gain, and those who just quietly got on with things, helped out where needed, never craving the spotlight. The initial euphoria of having survived, quickly replaced by the reality of the devastation surrounding them. And the need to find a scapegoat for the pain, the suffering – lashing out at each other in blind fury, all previous allegiances forgotten in the aftermath of the tragedy. Each one of Henry-Jones’ characters is well drawn and true-to-life, their emotions raw, honest and laid bare for everyone to see.
As Annie returns to her old home, we get to know her through flashbacks to her childhood, growing up with a teenage mother and a grandmother who was very much the head of the household, Annie’s uncle the only male figure in her life. There is a nostalgia in Annie’s voice that goes deeper than just dealing with the trauma – it speaks of displacement, of loss of place, of innocence, of home. Still drawn to the hills that featured so strongly in her life, Annie’s city life is a mere front, one that she can no longer maintain.
“Each time she comes back the knows fewer people, fewer cars, fewer trees. Each time she comes back it feels less like home and makes her feel strangely helpless. She wants to go home, but she no longer knows how to find it.”
I also loved Pip, the small girl whose inability to express her trauma into words makes her act out, lash out in anger and fear. It is only with her equally traumatised grandmother that Pip learns to confront her fears, step by little step, to make real healing possible.
Ache is a beautiful tale of trauma, loss and redemption. Like a phoenix rising out of the ashes, our characters need to be stripped completely raw to be able to move on. A rebirth of a kind, a healing, a moving on. In the small steps Henry-Jones’ characters take towards rebuilding their lives, there is a message of hope, of inner peace, of growth. Beautifully written, this is a nostalgic and somewhat dreamy read which deeply touched my heart. Very highly recommended.
And Annie learned the strange, bewildering lesson that there was often a path of unrelated, unpleasant things that had to be followed to get somewhere that you loved.
Annie wonders what Pip will think about, when her daughter reflects on her childhood. How endless these years seem now. But Annie knows that soon they will seem as fleeting as the gap between an inhale and an exhale. A teetering moment of stillness.
Thank you to Netgalley and HarperCollins Publishers Australia for the free electronic copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.