BOOK REVIEW: THE FIRE STARTERS by JAN CARSON

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Jen Carson is an exceptional writer. The Fire Starters has some of the most vivid, immersive descriptions of a city and its ethos that I’ve read in a long time. In the hands of Jan Carson, East Belfast becomes a city that is at once recognizable and unique, one that somehow feels both familiar in its everyday mundanities and yet utterly distinct in its particular quirks. All of this is to say, Carson renders the setting of her novel with a masterful balance between the sprawling and the specific.

And yet this is no portrait of a quaint, inert city. East Belfast, and by extension the people in it, is subject to tensions that threaten to, quite literally, boil over. The characters of the The Fire Starters find themselves embroiled in circumstances that seem unexpected and yet strangely inevitable. On the one hand there is Sammy Agnew who finds his violent past from the Troubles unearthed and, he believes, mutated into a far more dangerous form in his son’s actions. On the other, there is Jonathan Murray, a man whose past has, unlike Sammy’s, been painfully empty and impressionless. Together, these two men’s narratives coalesce into a narrative about fatherhood, masculinity, and intergenerational relationships: how do fathers think of their identities in relation to their children’s, especially their sons? how does a particular conception of masculinity in East Belfast relate to a particular kind of violence? how does violence seep from one generation to the next, and how does it mutate between those generations? In so doing, Carson depicts a milieu in which the momentous is often noticed and known, but not necessarily acknowledged. It becomes not so much a matter of things unseen, but rather things left unsaid despite them having been seen. In other words, a milieu in which silence pervades.

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Throughout all this, Carson pays particular attention to names, the ways in which something, once named, becomes Something–a sudden representative of the essence of some kind of phenomenon or event, one that is almost destined to prove inadequate to the task of that representation. Names fall short in The Fire Starters; they obfuscate rather than clarify.

“This is Belfast. This is not Belfast.

Better to avoid calling anything a spade in this city. Better to avoid names and places, dates and second names. In this city names are like points on a map or words worked in ink. They are trying too hard to pass for truth. In this city truth is a circle from one side and a square from the other.”

“The Troubles is too less a word for all of this. It is a word for minor inconveniences, such as overdrawn bank accounts, slow punctures, a woman’s time of the month. It is not a violent word. […] The Troubles is always written with a capital T as if it were an event, as the Battle of Hastings is an event with a fixed beginning and end, a point on the calendar year. History will no doubt prove it is actually a verb; an action that can be done to people over and over again, like stealing.”

The only thing is, I wanted to feel more strongly about these characters. As cliche as it sounds, my favourite character from this novel was East Belfast, and really, considering the amount of time we spend learning about the conditions of the city from a kind of literary bird’s eye view, it is absolutely its own character. That said, I wanted to feel more attached to the two main characters, Sammy and Jonathan. I definitely cared about their struggles and anxieties, but I also didn’t feel like like they had 100% of my sympathy.

Regardless, The Fire Starters is an impressive novel with even more impressive writing. Jan Carson is definitely a writer to look out for.

Thanks so much to Transworld Ireland/Penguin Books UK for sending me a copy of this in exchange for an honest review!

3.5-


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BOOK REVIEW: THE BOOK OF THE UNNAMED MIDWIFE by MEG ELISON

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Image result for the book of the unnamed midwifeI’ve never been a fan of post-apocalyptic stories. It feels like if you read one you’ve basically read them all. So imagine my surprise when I read The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, a post-apocalyptic book, and actually enjoyed it …?

Here’s what I think distinguishes Meg Elison’s take on the post-apocalypse and why I think I ultimately liked this book:

– The Book of the Unnamed Midwife unapologetically foregrounds women’s experiences. Elison does not take for granted what women might go through in a world where 99% of the population—more women than men—has been effectively wiped out. Instead, she addresses the traumatic directly: women are raped, sold into slavery, mutilated, things for men to trade and barter with. Indeed, this is a book that would be vastly different if its main character were a man and not a woman. Its titular “Unnamed Midwife” is a protagonist whose experiences in this post-apocalyptic world are indelibly coloured by the fact that she is a woman.

But the women in The Book of the Unnamed Midwife are more than just their trauma; they are also their desires, their needs, their physical labour, their storytelling. I want to particularly highlight those first two because Elison does not shy away from women’s desires and needs, specifically sexual desires and needs. I feel like in so many books I read, female sexuality is a non-issue; it’s not positively or negatively depicted because it’s not depicted at all. But in her novel, Elison writes a main character whose sexuality is present and explicit and acted-upon. The “Unnamed Midwife” also identifies somewhere along the lgbtqia+ spectrum—at one point she says she’s attracted to the person and not the body, so maybe pansexual (?), but it’s never explicitly stated.

– The Book of the Unnamed Midwife prioritizes the psychological. My aversion to post-apocalyptic stories has always stemmed from the fact that authors seem to write them as some kind of extended metaphor and not much else. In these kinds of stories the apocalypse and its impetus just become ways for authors to make on-the-nose, tired analogies to the current state of Society. For example: in book epidemic turns people into mindless zombies = in real life phones turn people into mindless zombies. Wow! Amazing! Totally-not-obvious commentary! But I didn’t get that at all from Elison’s narrative. She didn’t seem preoccupied with some abstract metaphorical aim so much as she was striving to depict people trying to live in unlivable circumstances: how do you choose to keep living when the world proves to you time and time again that there is not much to live for? These kinds of issues are definitely more my speed than the more “literary”—however you choose to interpret that term—takes on the post-apocalypse that I’ve read.

More than anything, I think The Book of the Unnamed Midwife is a compelling and unabashed look at how the apocalyptic does not level its victims equally; when we speak of suffering among men and women in its wake, we speak of two very different things.

3.5-


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BOOK REVIEW: DID YOU EVER HAVE A FAMILY by BILL CLEGG

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Beautiful in the saddest ways, Did You Ever Have a Family is a sweeping yet particular novel, examining grief and trauma and how they intersect and coalesce in different people with different histories and relationships. Its writing is sparse but potent, its emotional beats all the more powerful because they are unornamented. There’s such an unmitigated sense of melancholy running throughout this story, an emptiness at the immensity of the loss that these characters have suffered. Yet it’s not a completely hopeless novel either. If Clegg is clear about anything, it is that just as loss alienates, it also connects.
One criticism: I felt that some of the passages about the women in this novel were really gratuitous, especially in their violence and objectification. Out of nowhere, you find out that one of the characters’ lesbian friends–who was in a happy relationship, by the way–was raped and killed while she was sleeping in the safety of her own home. Raped and killed? In the middle of a happy relationship? While she was sleeping in her own house? It irritated me that, in killing off a minor character, Clegg chose to have her be raped and killed while she was sleeping. Is this kind of horrific death necessary? Why not just have her die in a car crash or something? Another thing was that one of the characters, Silas, constantly objectified women. I know he’s a teenage boy and all but, again, to what extent are passages about him imagining women naked and staring at their “ass” (“That ass! He’s spellbound by the metronomic perfection of its movement and thinks, This is no mom’s ass”) and curve of their breasts really necessary to this story?

3.5-


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