Review — Ash, by Louise Wallace

Reviewed by Anna Scaife

‘Ash is a bruising portrait of what boils in the belly of a woman who is “coping”, revealed with humour and a rare candour.’

 Louise Wallace’s simmering rural story Ash is easily swallowed whole, yet it’s a book layered with flavour, promising to reward the reader who lingers. It’s a bruising portrait of what boils in the belly of a woman who is “coping”, revealed with humour and a rare candour. The prose is sparse and beautifully crafted, and sections of verse pepper the text with raw observations. 

Ōtepoti writer Wallace is the author of four poetry collections. The most recent, This Is a Story About Your Mother was published by THWUP in 2023. Ash is her first novel and I suspect many will be left hoping there’s more where this came from.

Ash is the story of Thea, a vet living in a rural community that sprawls under the shadow of a restless volcano. Thea is on maternity leave, juggling the care of baby Lucy, and preschooler Eli. Weighing heavily on her mind is the retreating intimacy between her  and husband Nick, a relationship dulled by competing priorities and fatigue. A section named ‘Date Night’ (pg. 50) describes in electric detail how an attempt to reconnect is rendered empty by the logistics of taking an evening off.

In a work environment that brims with bias,​​ Thea must fight to hold her ground as a woman vet, and working mother, and is under pressure to do the same for a female colleague. Yet work also provides a welcome break. In one scene, after dropping her children at daycare and taking a moment to sip coffee at her desk, Thea observes, ‘Work is a holiday and I smile into the beautiful quiet.’ (p. 23)

Contradictions flicker throughout the book. Thea’s mother in-law comes and goes, appearing at times as a savior, stepping in to take care of the children, and equally as an agitator. Her comment, ‘He’s done so well, hasn’t he?’ while observing her son’s landscaping work reminds Thea (and with an acute sense of recognition, the reader) that his achievements are ‘…visible, measurable, and only possible because I am looking after the kids at the same time.’ (p. 30).

When the angry mountain that casts a shadow over the township dramatically erupts, it fills the air with dark ash which settles in a thick layer, creeping under the doors and refusing to move on for weeks. What follows is achingly familiar; queues for toilet paper, mask wearing, and the pervasive anxiety of breathing air with the potential to poison. The pressure builds for Thea. At home Nick becomes obsessed with emergency preparedness, and the clamour of anxious clients concerned about animal health is constant. Amid this mounting chaos, Thea receives an urgent phone call. What follows forces her to confront her building rage and reveals moments of magic buried under the haze. 

Ash is a story that cracks along, and Thea’s voice feels alive and recognisable. Wallace uses verse to expose thoughts in their raw form, and the book is dotted with poetic borrowings and musings providing a parallel layer that further deepens our understanding. Later, when things are unbearably tough for Thea, her state of mind is partially revealed in dreams. Dream sequences can be awkward, but it works here. An image of sheep lying in a paddock, covered in ash … ‘all staring, asking things of me.’ (p. 131) works to portray anxiety in a way that stopped me in my tracks.

A rare and compelling honesty wriggles under the novel’s skin. Wallace tells Thea’s story with surgical economy. The cast are rendered alive by the lightest of brush strokes, the author choosing to notice what is most telling, selecting prose that scorches with wit. I cannot recall reading another text that so convincingly portrays the stream of micro-injustices that jab at the psyche of a working mother. Each incident presents an unseen injury, which combined spells a death by a thousand pinpricks. 

Ash is an impressive first novel that sweeps the reader along. Pick it up with time to spare, then keep it handy, because there’s something about Wallace’s writing that will stay with you, drawing you back to the page.

Reviewed by Anna Scaife

Anna Scaife is a graduate of the Masters of Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters. Her short fiction has appeared in Landfall, takahē, Turbine, Flash Frontier and At the Bay | Te Kokuru. Anna lives in Ōtautahi Christchurch.