This hefty book of almost 500 pages of small print is fat with fascinating stories and beautiful prose, but it does require some effort from the reader if she is to partake of all that’s on offer and especially if she is to grasp the full force of the links between them all. Not a fan of the post-modern, I chose to skip the sections inviting me to take a tour of the virtual cabinet of curiosities exploring the lost homeland of the title across the centuries, and read it as a more conventional novel told across different timelines and different points of view. Although I might have missed out on some of its deeper meanings, I enjoyed the beautiful pictures the author painted, especially in the focus on Georgie’s childhood and gender identity struggles. It’s a novel about identity and the processing of trauma, big and small, my first from Irish publisher New Island who kindly provided my review copy.
One January night, a fire starts deep in the bowels of a large old house divided into flats rented to an assortment reclusive individuals. The landlord is the only one awake at the time, but he’s up on the roof, stargazing, and attributes the odd smell to the malfunctioning of the ancient projector through which he’s been spooling through the memories of his life. Inserted between the landlord’s tale which bookends this intriguing and clever novel, are separate stories of his six tenants who, before succumbing to the flames, revisit their pasts at a point of personal and/or professional crisis.
I changed my mind about this novel several times in the course of my reading. Initially, the frame evoked Chaucer’s pilgrims, although their landlord is a different character. I then wondered if it were a flimsy device to brand what was really short story collection as a novel. But as I discovered the connections, large and small, between the narratives, I became excited. From minor details – rotting fruit; long, high-veined hands; cliff paths; photographs; a beautiful, slant-eyed woman – to their personal histories – deceased or dying mothers; distant fathers; unwelcome tokens of love; living in the shadow of a favoured older sibling – the lives of these six men and one woman, all named Steven or one of its derivatives, were clearly connected, but why?
The epigraph, from psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips, points to “phantom histories … that … linger on as thwarted possibilities”, while the third narrator, a neurosurgeon, flags up that the “impression of a coherent self … is an illusion” emerging from “a babble of competing soliloquies in our neural channels” (p142). While I’m comfortable with the latter (see also The Voices Within), the logic of the former, that these were all alternative possibilities of a single life felt as if the ground were crumbling beneath my feet, as I longed for some sense of a single “true” story among them, perhaps the author’s own, even if it could not be told.
But Night of Fire proved more thought-provoking than fictional explorations of alternative histories I’ve come across (e.g. My Real Children; The Versions of Us; The End of Days), and I regained my footing as the novel’s themes – memory, different forms of knowledge and belief in the divine – became more defined. Another psychoanalytic idea, referred to tangentially by the neurosurgeon, is of a house as the psyche, rendering the characters different aspects, as opposed to versions, of the self. Underlining that, a Buddhist monk tells one Steven, a lifelong traveller – and, incidentally, the author is a renowned travel writer – “life is a burning house” (p353). It seems to me, then, it’s a novel about the big questions: how do we capture or conceptualise our own or another’s being? What is truth and do we even exist? As Steve, a photographer who creates a whole new name and identity to woo a woman, says when he’s unmasked: “Because I created it, it seemed to happen.” (p267) Many writers will identify with that.
Although I steer away from the superficial in my reading, I don’t look for too much of an intellectual challenge. But this manages to be profound without bamboozling; I’m not even sure I understood it completely (and I certainly didn’t get all the references across the different stories), but I enjoyed it and am left in awe of the author’s mind. Thanks Chatto & Windus for my review copy.
Once again, I’m joining in the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge; this time it’s to write a 99-word story that steps beyond. I composed my contribution, recording it on my phone on my solitary walk on Christmas morning, counting syllables on my fingers (I’m currently obsessed with iambic pentameters, despite being tone deaf for poetry):
Each year she pushed a little more to meet the magic she’d been told was there for all
It teased her like a dancing butterfly she could not capture in her tiny net
She courted it with turkey, tinsel, bells and baubles, carols but without success
Until she turned her back on mock constraints to shape a Yuletide worthy of her truth
Beyond illusion, rule or etiquette she found the sparkle hitherto denied
Within herself; she’d be her own messiah sent to save the only one she could.
I heartily enjoyed my Christmas walk and (copying Charli Mills) returned with (less dramatic) photos as my gift to you. The moors look better in full sun, but I was pleased it stayed dry and mild, and very excited to discover the guidestoop that I’d seen in a book but never realised was so close to one of my familiar walks.