The Fire Starters
‘Dr Jonathan Murray suspects his new-born daughter is not as harmless as she seems. Sammy Agnew is wrestling with his dark past, and fears that the violence in his blood lurks in his son too. The city is in flames and the authorities are losing control. As matters fall into frenzy, and as the lines between fantasy and truth, right and wrong begin to blur, who will these fathers choose to protect?’
This fine and gripping novel surfs on a sea of angst, regret, desperation, lies, trauma, violence, conscience, and hand-wringing, head-hurting decision-making. And fire. That is not to say it lacks humour or wisdom or humanity. It is a veritable casserole of impressive storytelling, wondrous phrasing, amazing wordplay, superb analogies and deliberate playfulness to keep the reader engaged whilst never allowing the predictable to ruin the books finale. The final chapter had me sweating.
The novel is set in East Belfast, which has a nice part and a not-so-nice part. Dr Murray lives in the former and Sammy Agnew in the latter. They have different backgrounds and lives but there is common ground between them, involving grave concerns about their respective children. The backdrop to their individual stories is a city plagued by fires started by arsonists encouraged by an elusive figure via the Internet. The figure and his firebrand followers are ‘the fire starters’.
As a result of a sexual encounter, Dr Murray is left with a baby daughter after the mother disappears. He convinces himself that the child is half-human and half-siren, a dangerous being who will create havoc once she grows and learns to speak. He hatches an extreme plan to curtail any potential evil. He discovers that he is not unusual in having an ‘unfortunate’ child but struggles with his job, his role as a lone father, the anxiety that controls him and his conflicting thoughts on his baby girl’s future.
Sammy Agnew is a former paramilitary with much blood on his hands. He wrestles with his past and tries to make the best of his uneasy present. His son Mark still lives at home. He is reclusive and Sammy suspects his son is involved in evil acts. Their relationship falls between strained and non-existent. Sammy is determined to find a way to save his son from any consequences that might result from his actions. The old anger and violent tendencies, whilst under a degree of control since the end of The Troubles, still simmer but could erupt anytime. Sammy is extremely worried that his own past evil has been passed on to his son.
The book follows each father’s separate story and draws them together in a doctor/patient relationship that develops into a mutual confession, opening themselves up, but not fully, about what is eating away at them. The conclusions are dramatic and tense, exciting and terrifying. As I indicated, I read the final chapter with moist hands.
Jan Carson has written an outstanding novel, fascinating in its analysis of how far human beings are willing to go physically and emotionally. This is sublime, gritty, compelling human storytelling that never runs out of puff from page 1 to page 289. It deserves wide readership. It has already won the 2019 EU Prize for Literature, the first of many deserved accolades. Bravo, Jan Carson, bravo!