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!