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



December 07, 2019 by Linda Murray

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