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Review: Home Fires by Fiona Lowe

Home Fires
Fiona Lowe
Harlequin AUS
2019, 487p
Copy courtesy of the publisher/AM Publicity

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

From the bestselling Australian author of Daughter of Mine and Birthright. When a lethal bushfire tore through Myrtle, nestled in Victoria’s breathtaking Otway Ranges, the town’s buildings – and the lives of its residents – were left as smouldering ash. For three women in particular, the fire fractured their lives and their relationships.

Eighteen months later, with the flurry of national attention long past, Myrtle stands restored, shiny and new. But is the outside polish just a veneer? Community stalwart Julie thinks tourism could bring back some financial stability to their little corner of the world and soon prods Claire, Bec and Sophie into joining her group. But the scar tissue of trauma runs deep, and as each woman exposes her secrets and faces the damage that day wrought, a shocking truth will emerge that will shake the town to its newly rebuilt foundations…

With her sharp eye for human foibles, bestselling author Fiona Lowe writes an evocative tale of everyday people fighting for themselves, their families and their town – as only this distinctively Australian storyteller can.

Summer has just come to an end (not that the weather thinks so, as we just finished a stretch of 37-40*C days that extended into March) and there are currently bushfires burning down in the south east of Victoria. Bushfires are an inescapable part of life here and the threat and fear of them is something most people can relate to, even when they have no personal experience.

Eighteen months ago, the lives of many populating the small town of Myrtle were changed when a bushfire took lives, houses and businesses. Those left behind are still struggling to recover. Claire lost several of the people dearest to her and now feels the pressure in her relationship with Matt, who just wants to pretend everything is fine. Josh and Sophie lost their dream forever home and insurance laws mean they don’t have the cash to rebuild. Bec and her husband are doing just fine financially, given he’s busy rebuilding everyone’s lost homes and developing land but the state of their marriage is a dark secret. Community leader Julie sees an opportunity to bring the women of the next generation together and strengthen friendships and the town.

There is a lot going on in this story – each of the characters have been affected by the fire and it’s still playing a role in their lives all these months later. Claire and Julie both lost people they love. Claire was supposed to be getting married on the day the bushfire tore through the town and she now bears a large burden of guilt about that. She hasn’t been able to reschedule the wedding and now Matt, her fiance, is pressuring her to have a baby, like they’d planned in the ‘before’. Matt is a tough character to really feel sympathetic to here. The two of them got together in somewhat dubious circumstances, Claire has experienced the backlash of that with Matt’s family, she doesn’t have a support structure of her own and so she’s vulnerable and finds it difficult to express herself for fear of losing what she still has. Matt has what seems like an overly controlling streak, taking it upon himself to track Claire’s cycle, run his mouth about things best kept private between a couple and just generally be completely oblivious to what is troubling Claire. The thing is, it’s not at all a stretch of the imagination to understand what makes Claire reluctant to do some of these things but Matt is the quintessential ostrich. If he cannot see it, it isn’t happening. He doesn’t support Claire in the face of his family, he talks at her rather than to her. That’s not to say Claire is without fault either. She’s super busy in her job but she uses this to avoid her other commitments or chooses it over them. She also cannot talk to Matt about what she wants but this is borne out of fear. Matt says some truly awful things to Claire in this novel, which I do not believe he ever seriously and genuinely apologised for, nor were they dealt with to the level of which they deserved. I appreciated the counselling angle but Matt went into it with completely the wrong attitude and it takes quite a while for him to begin listening and understanding. Claire is pretty quick to forgive hime actually.

Bec wasn’t a character I warmed to in the beginning but I think she probably ended up being my favourite one. Bec is the sort of person who presents one way and it’s a bit pretentious but then you realise just why and how she comes across this way and that part of the novel was very well done. This is insidious and not the sort of way that it’s often portrayed and Fiona Lowe does a great job escalating it throughout the story until Bec is in such danger and the things that are happening to her are so horrific. The tension builds alarmingly well and Lowe chooses a ‘town hero’, someone where it wouldn’t be easy for Bec to be heard because he’s got that ‘good bloke’ wrap that people are so fond of labelling men with, even when they do the most awful things.

I quite enjoyed the rest of the characters – Josh and Sophie were very interesting and that was another great look at how the strain of the fire had continued to have financial and emotional impacts well after it had burned out. Josh and Sophie are struggling – Sophie has had to go back to work, something moving to Myrtle was supposed to avoid so she could devote herself to their two small children. She’s finding it very hard because Josh does things in a different way to her – not wrong, just different. And that’s a really good thing to explore I think, because I know of couples who argue over how things get done, depending on who is the ‘at home’ parent because they have different standards of cleanliness and what they expect the non working parent to be able to achieve in a day. Sophie also doesn’t realise what is truly happening with Josh, because he’s never told her and that is well done too. Sophie and Josh’s situation also explores just how difficult it can be to rebuild after such a devastating incident – it’s not just a simple matter of the insurance company going oh yes, here’s the value of your house, good luck. Bushfires often mean changing classifications, changing standards and building and industry codes. And that means rebuilds cost more money.

I do feel as though this book, which comes in at close to 500p, is a fraction too long and some of the back and forth jumps in time felt a bit all over the place and I actually think I would’ve preferred a linear narrative. Apart from that and the character of Matt, who just wasn’t at all my sort of thing (nor were his family, who were also thoughtlessly insensitive and could be quite rude), the rest of this book was a satisfying read with a very realistic experience to what I think it must be like, rebuilding and recovering after a fire. It’s not easy, it leaves lasting effects and this reflects that in many ways.


Book #39 of 2019

Home Fires is the 18th book read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019

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