“People don’t get their morality from their reading matter, they bring their morality to it” ( Clive James, who died the week we reviewed this!)
Keane’s skill is absolutely this, he is not our moraliser, he simply brings the facts to our attention and lays them out to demonstrate his points.
Review – October 2019 BPS Bookclub - The Fire Starters, by Jan Carson
Even before Jan Carson dropped in to fill us with additional insights, not to mention lots of further reading suggestions, this book had created plenty of discussion. For all of its good points, there was still a relatively high ‘ irritation factor’ for about half of our readers.
The Irish Times argues “ her surrealist style works well to tell grim tales of violence and loss” but this drifting into magical realism, or surrealism, is what most divides her audience.
There are 3 quite distinct narratives – the Tall Fires and the immediacy of Belfast in July; the parallel stories of Sammy and Jonathan as parents, and the vignettes of the Unfortunate Children. Some felt the book was too disjointed with all these different elements, others that it did all wrap to a satisfying close after all.
Taking Sammy and Jonathan first – everyone thought these characters were excellently portrayed, even the dark and violent Sammy elicited our sympathy for the relationships he‘s struggling with. The post Troubles ‘anger and guilt’ is very obvious in Sammy, and well expressed.
Whilst Sammy seems ‘full of badness’, Jonathan is the innocent, the victim of truly appalling parenting and perhaps even susceptible to fantasy and make believe himself? Each human is on the edge of rational self-control and appears to be living a false reality, keeping many secrets and being dishonest with themselves and others.
Then we get the background narrative of Belfast, and what is going on with the ‘fire starters’ – the language and context of the city is so good, so perceptive – but perhaps too parochial? Does the book in fact paint too dark a picture of East Belfast altogether? The ‘fire and water’ theme works well in building tension in the streets, then to be washed away by the torrential aftermath after the Twelfth.
And finally, the various vignettes of the children. Classified as ‘Unfortunates’, but arguably gifted in their own ways, and interestingly all quite warm and positive children (especially Ella) despite their parents being stressed and secretive about their ‘gifts’. Jan explained that her deliberate use of magical realism is what allows her to explore the background of conflict and paradox that is Belfast, at ‘arm’s length’ and this is what makes the book also more interesting than a pure ‘realism’ narrative.
In the course of our conversation she inspired us with a wealth of other writers, many of whom are using magical realism to comment on something more real, and I hope I’ve captured them all here. We spoke about the need for a beautifully concise short story, and how it is a particular art close to the hearts of the Irish. She also encouraged us to read more European writers in translation. A very inspiring and encouraging session.
Jan’s Best Reads !
Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter
Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
Women Talking, Miriam Toews
Birthday Stories, and The Elephant Vanishes, Haruki Murakami
The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
There There, Tommy Orange
The Redemption of Galen Pike, Carys Davies ( the perfect short story)
F is for Ferg, Ian Cochrane ( a fine example of ‘Cullybackey Gothic’ !)
Fever Dream, Samanta Schwabin
Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires
In Persuasion Nation, George Saunders
Well, this was an interesting one. Very rarely do two groups differ quite so markedly in their assessment of the same book!
It was definitely a book that prompted a lot of discussion, often far-reaching beyond the scope of the immediate story, so that in itself gives the book some merit.
Starting off on our usual quantitative ‘first reaction’ scale, I’m afraid this one came in high on the tedious and boring side. However, I think we would all concede that just because we didn’t like Richard very much ( in my mind forever to be Jim in The Archers!), it doesn’t mean that the book was lacking in substance. In fact, in many ways the writer tried too hard to pack all her meticulous research and findings into the story. A little more loose creative touch might just have given it the ‘good read’ factor and lifted this book into very worthwhile territory. As it stands, it’s a little too ‘worthy and uncomfortable’ and not just as worthwhile.
When Jenny Erpenbeck does develop the story – and doesn’t she write very well in the man’s voice? – there are moments which are really touching and poignant. The moment with the first piano lesson, the observation that the men’s mobile phones really were their lifelines – these were well constructed and emotional passages. But there was a lot of intellectual rumination, perhaps too early in the story and way before we had developed any sympathy with Richard or his new friends. Whilst it clearly is a deliberate narrative style for Richard, we could do with some more cracks into his soul…. everything we learn about him, from his adultery to his difficult relationship with his wife, simply adds to our lack of empathy with him. The ongoing metaphor of the dead man in the lake alludes to Richard’s own state, but this is not explored in any depth. Each of his new friends is given a metaphor via his classical adopted name – but the meaning behind this is not explored for us.
The writer’s own life does parallel that of Richard’s, as an ex DDR ( East Germany) citizen who then became ‘assimilated’ rather quickly into the democratic West at the end of the 1980’s. This unease and uncertainty about where he now belongs sits in parallel to the immigrant’s plight and adds a layer of empathy and understanding that the ‘first world citizen’ might not recognise. However the book is definitely ‘politics light’ - it sticks firmly to the human stories and prefers to steer away from making any character in the book too overtly political. The various asylum seekers are portrayed generally as world innocents, caught up in bureaucracy not of their making.
Politically, this novel adds significantly to the task for fiction of understanding contemporary immigration. There is a clarity of understanding about the reality of today’s asylum seekers and job seekers, and a comprehensive world view of where and how Africa clashes with Europe. Plus a sceptical yet realistic view on what can or should be done to ‘fix’ the issues. Towards the end there are some powerful thoughts on Germany, where it stood historically in terms of fairness and justice, and reflections on how the Nazi period has constantly overshadowed the rest of its history.