fire starters

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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.


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!


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A lot of the times I’ll read literary fiction that proves unbearably irritating because it is so intent on blowing every single one of its moments out of proportion: every word of dialogue, every glance, every movement becomes imbued with monumental implications, the author somehow gleaning paragraphs and paragraphs’ worth of information out of a moment that seems, to put it simply, Not That Deep. Oftentimes this kind of attempt to make a novel brim with meaning backfires and instead makes it painfully caught up in its own forced significance. Real Life is a novel that resists all the trappings of this attempt at artificial meaning-making, a novel that in fact pays the right amount of attention to the minute.

“Off to the side, a man is eating something from a cardboard bowl. He has the sort of lean face in which the muscles of his jaws are visible as they work. Wallace watches the muscles slide and shift beneath the man’s skin, which is olive colored. There is also the thickening muscle in his neck as he swallows, the food passing down and down through his throat and into the darkness of his body. This is an ordinary act, so commonplace as to seem invisible, but when any such act is considered, there is a wild strangeness to it. Consider how the eyelid slides down over the eyeball and back, the world cast into an instant of darkness with every blink. Consider the act of breathing, which comes regularly and without effort–and yet the great surge of air that must enter and exit the body is an almost violent event, tissues pushed and compressed and slid apart and opened and closed, so much blood all over the whole business of it. Ordinary acts take on strange shadows when viewed up close.

To me, that last line is almost the thesis of the whole novel: “Ordinary acts take on strange shadows when viewed up close.” This statement takes on different inflections throughout the novel, depending on the context in which it becomes salient: relationships with friends, with romantic and/or sexual partners, with classmates, with professors and advisors. Taylor exerts such a careful control on his writing in this novel that despite their ostensible ordinariness, acts are rendered in substantial and yet not unnecessary detail; these acts matter not just (and not always) because they represent some huge, monumental thing, but also because of the fact that they are, in the end, still ordinary.

I am thinking especially of the ways in which Real Life pays attention to the pervasiveness of the microaggressions that Wallace, as a Black man, has to experience in his almost exclusively white campus. Taylor depicts an environment in which microaggressions proliferate and fester, creating a milieu that is suffocating in its insistence to let them go unchecked and indeed actively unacknowledged. Microaggressions, here, operate as a kind of act that seems ordinary to those who are not on the receiving end of them, those who were never meant to be the targets of these microaggressions to begin with.

“And there is the other thing–the shadow pain, he calls it, because he cannot say its real name. Because to say its real name would be to cause trouble, to make waves. To draw attention to it, as though it weren’t in everything already.”

Again there is this idea of a “shadow” that lies beneath what is on the surface of an interaction. If “ordinary acts take on strange shadows when viewed up close,” then microaggressions are ordinary acts whose marginalizing effects stem from them being and staying in those shadows. Microaggressions are significant precisely because they are ordinary, because they are, as Wallace says, “in everything.” They are also the acts that those who don’t experience them refuse to acknowledge. Put another way, the ordinary is important not just because it represents something bigger, in this case implicit racism, but also precisely because it is ordinary, because that implicit racism takes shape and thrives in commonplace occurrences.

And this is not to mention that all of this is coming from people who are supposed to be Wallace’s friends. Needless to say, these microaggressions (and in some cases overt racism) take their toll on Wallace, leaving him exhausted, frustrated, or else resigned to their inevitability. Taylor builds this kind of environment so intricately and precisely, laying one brick atop another until in the end you’re faced with the sheer overwhelming height of an inherently racist structure. It infuriated me on behalf of Wallace; I honestly don’t remember the last time a novel angered me this much.

I also think it’s important to underline the fact that Wallace is more than the marginalization he faces; things don’t just happen to him. He’s a fascinating, instropective, relatable and yet oftentimes entirely elusive character. He’s always so alert to his world, attuned to the lines of connection (or tension) that thrum within his friend group.

I have so much else to say, but I’m going to stop here, as I think I’ve written plenty already. That being said, Real Life is a novel that explores so many more topics with tact and insight: sexual abuse, trauma, sex, grad school–I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg here. More broadly, it’s a novel that intricately and deftly examines the textures of relationships and interactions, the ways in which they often operate as a push and pull. I loved this one so much.


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Wry, absurd, and almost casually poignant—Nicole Flattery’s writing feels like a genre of its own.

Almost as soon as you start this book, you can tell that you’re reading something different; it’s the kind of book that makes you tilt your head to side. Whatever direction you expect these stories to go in, they go in the opposite direction. Flattery approaches her subject matter—women experiencing turmoil of some kind, whether it be physical abuse, emotional abuse, bereavement, abortion—obliquely, giving you just enough to understand that her characters have all of this lurking in their inner lives, but not enough for you to fully understand the extent of its impact on them. There is so much implied meaning in these stories; you’re given the tip of the iceberg and expected to infer the size of the structure that lies beneath it. And this style of writing is really the perfect strategy for a short story: it gives you enough information to feel like you know something substantial about these characters, but not so much that they’re rendered transparent or caricatured.

“I said that I had to leave to discover things about myself. I withheld the fact that there wasn’t much to discover. Just ordinary surface and, beneath that, more desperate surface.”

“In that brief moment everyone saw my mind and my mind was absent of all ideas. I thought I would be a different person by this time in my life, but I was actually becoming less like someone else and more like myself. It was troubling.”

Though these stories deal with serious subject matter, they also don’t take themselves too seriously. Flattery doesn’t strictly rely on a sense of realism in her narratives, but instead goes in slightly absurd, off-kilter directions. The stories in this collection are told with a wry, deadpan sense of humour, one that buoys them and prevents them from getting bogged down in melodramatic territory. Though Show Them a Good Time is sometimes facetious in dealing with subject matter you would maybe expect it to take seriously, it’s also not flippant and invests in moments that matter to its characters.


Show Them a Good Time is a collection that is exactly as its title promises. It gets at both the weird, funny spectacle of performance, but also the pressure to perform, to show them a good time when you are decidedly not having a good time. It’s about how performance in the everyday can at times be artistic expression and at others voyeuristic and exploitative.

Thank you so much to Bloomsbury for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!

PS: I highly recommend checking out the Stinging Fly Podcast’s episode on Nicole Flattery where they read and discuss the first and titular short story of this collection, “Show Them a Good Time.”

PPS: my favourite short stories were “Show Them a Good Time,” “Abortion, a Love Story,” and “Not the End Yet.”

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