Various Fires

A couple of things today. First, the latest inbetweenie update of Shiny New Books is available at the site – a further 22 reviews and features. A few of my personal highlights:

The editors discuss the Booker longlist (which we enjoyed doing very much)

Max Dunbar’s wonderful review of Kevin Birmingham’s book about the controversy surrounding the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses

When I was too poorly to read and review Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Simon leapt Sir Galahad-like into the breach and took it on for me. He liked it but didn’t think it worthy of the prize longlist.

Reviews of books I absolutely have to read: Beth Gutcheon’s Gossip, N. Quentin Woolf’s The Death of the Poet, Maggie Gee’s Virginia Woolf in Manhatten, Angela Young’s The Dance of Love, Rhidian Brook’s The Aftermath.

TheArsonistFor almost the past two months I’ve been hesitating over Sue Miller’s new novel, The Arsonist, and whether I would review it here or in SNB. I’m a huge fan of Sue Miller and think she is wonderful on the complex networks of emotions that bind families and friends together. She has tremendous subtlety in her writing along with a fine-tuned understanding of the dramatic power of ordinary daily life. In short she does something I love: write about reality in a way that digs deep into the real. When I began The Arsonist, I was convinced it was going to end up on my best-of list for the year, but then the ending left me in all kinds of doubt.

The story begins when Frankie Rowley comes home to her parents in the small town of Pomeroy, New Hampshire after fifteen years as an aid worker in Africa. She is burnt out from the frustrating work, and the strange combination of glamour and destitution she has experienced as someone who would do international good. She has also recently been through a bruising break-up, after the kind of intense but short-lived relationship she is normally skilled at resolving. Although she hasn’t yet told her parents, she isn’t sure she will ever go back.

Parents Sylvia and Alfie have their own troubles. They have recently retired and decided to live in what used to be the family holiday home, thinking that its rural location will be both soothing and energising. But Alfie is increasingly troubled by the early signs of dementia, and Sylvia finds herself in the undesirable position of carer in an isolated environment. Nearby, Frankie’s sister, Liz and her family, are building a holiday home of their own, and Liz is relieved to see Frankie back, feeling that impending responsibility for their parents has rested for too long on her shoulders. But Frankie feels herself shrinking away from family demands. Her relationship with Sylvia is awkward – ‘mothering wasn’t a gift of her mother’s’ – something Sylvia herself doesn’t deny when she realises how much she resents Alfie’s slow decline, and after the demands of Africa, Frankie instinctively veers away from more impossible calls for aid. Alfie, who has always been indulged, does not understand what a burden of care he has set in motion.

Anyway, the first night Frankie is back, she wakes with jet lag and decides to go for a walk. On her return, a car shoots past her and she believes she can smell smoke. It isn’t until the next morning that she learns a neighbouring property has been set on fire and burned to the ground. And it isn’t until several days later that she puts two and two together regarding the car and whom it might have contained. In the meantime, the fires continue steadily. An arsonist is at work, targeting the properties of the summer vacationers, and whilst it seems that care is being taken to choose ones that stand empty, it isn’t long before a mistake is made.

Frankie begins a new relationship with Bud Jacobs, owner of the local newspaper and another escapee from the grind of ambitious careers. He used to be a political journalist in Washington but decided to take on the challenge of local news instead. As the number of arson attacks mount and the residents become ever more alarmed for their safety, Bud searches for all possible angles from which to cover the fires. When he writes that an anonymous source from the state police suggested that ‘the divide between year-round and summer residents could offer a possible motivation for what otherwise seems a series of motiveless crimes,’ he stirs up a hornets’ nest with this possibility of ‘class resentment’. It isn’t long before the summer residents are sending a petition to him, demanding more responsible reportage. The issue is hotter than the fires themselves.

So Sue Miller creates all kinds of provocative and fascinating oppositions in her novel: Will they track the arsonist down before someone’s life is lost? And what will the motivation for the crime be – personal or political? What will happen to Alfie as his condition deteriorates? Will Frankie choose the ‘ordinary’ life of small town America or the big picture of Africa? And what of her relationship with Bud – will that persuade her to stay? What of the dynamics in Frankie’s family – can they work together or will they be torn apart?

But once Frankie and Bud begin their affair, it seems to suck all the heat out of the rest of the story; the least interesting part of the narrative slowly starts to dominate. And much as I do not wish to give anything away, it’s fair to say that nothing is resolved, not any of the potentially enticing and thrilling storylines. You might of course say that Sue Miller remains resolutely true to life in making such choices. But at the same time, after all the lit fuses of the early part of the novel, it’s a letdown that there are no explosive conclusions.

I wondered whether Miller had so acutely put her finger on a series of powerful issues in America that she was unable to resolve them without coming down off her novelist’s fence. It would have been too risky to come out with the motivation for the arson as class resentment, too provocative to have Frankie choose outright for insular concerns over difficult international situations, too awkward to tackle the very real constraints to personal freedom that are posed by serious illnesses – both to those who suffer and those who must care for them. As I say, what I like most about Miller’s writing is how real she is. But she is also an insistently compassionate author; she has her characters admit to awkward, shameful failings and is careful always to grant them every sympathy. Perhaps she couldn’t, at any level, construct villains. But it does make for an uneven and inconclusive novel.


11 thoughts on “Various Fires

  1. Thank you for your mention of THE DANCE of LOVE. I hope you enjoy it when you get to it … but I also I look forward to finding out what you felt didn’t work.

    And how interesting about Miller’s compassion and – perhaps – her inability to construct villains. I remember Sue Gee (novelist and tutor on my writing MA) saying that as long as a writer finds just the smallest amount of compassion for her villain she will write him/her well however dark and dastardly, because that small amount of compassion – perhaps for background, or circumstances that moulded the character – will subtly show the reader the character isn’t entirely dark. It also gives the writer the courage to write the darkness because she knows it isn’t the absolute picture. And that small amount of compassion also makes the character all the more frightening because we realise when reading that it’s not entirely impossible we too could end up where he/she has ended up … .

    • What an interesting observation from Sue Gee (whose novels I am always intending to read – must do so!). I wonder whether in this novel, Sue Miller didn’t want that sense of ‘there but for the grace of God’. It felt like it to me, but then I could so easily be wrong. I felt she wanted her characters to make decent, ethical choices and then that was tricky, considering the situation. But Sue’s point is an excellent one, and really intriguing to consider.

      And I’m SO looking forward to The Dance of Love!

  2. I was the first one on the waiting list at the library for Birmingham’s book The Most Dangerous Book In The World when I saw it was due to be published. I had so much to read, it finally became due…then overdue…then I had a fine. I could not renew it and felt bad about holding on to it past its due date. I sat in the parking lot of the library and read a bit of it to see whether I missed anything…and after I dropped it in the box the first thing I did was put my name back on the list. From the little I read, I knew I had to get my hands on it again. And Yay for the inbetweenie! I especially am interested in the piece about the Booker prize, so I’ll high tail it on over there now.

    • I am extremely interested in this book too and would love to read it. Once again, I seem to have my reading for the next few months completely tied up in Shiny, which is fun in its way, but I miss the room for spontaneity. Mind you, that very same spontaneity all so often ends in library fines and books returned I haven’t opened! Happens to me all the time, too. 🙂

  3. Yes, hats off to you and your fellow editors and reviewers. – And to tell from just this piece in the Guardian, there’ll be plenty to keep a book buzz editor very busy over the next few months. – Personally I’m looking forward most to Marilynne Robinson’s novel.

    Thanks also for the interesting review, deftly done as usual. And that’s an intriguing point about the author’s compassionate attitude.

    • Ooh thank you for the very helpful link, Lokesh. I will share that one with my fellow eds. I’ve got the Margaret Atwood, and I think three-quarters of the list we’ve got covered.. but there are several others we should attend to. The publishers with books longlisted that were nowhere near in print have had to hustle to get them out sooner – I think that’s thrown us all! And thank you for your lovely compliment.

  4. I’ll definitely head over to read your discussions on the Booker Long List. I’d finished listening to Karen Joy Fowler’s audiobook, and I agree with Simon. It’s interesting but not what I think would be given a literary award. In a way, I’m surprised it’s even on the list. Thanks for your concerted effort in bringing out Shiny New Books. It’s a worthy project and highly informative. 😉

    • That’s very interesting, Arti, and Simon will be glad to know you agreed with him. And as for Shiny, you are welcome. We are still having a lot of fun (as well as hard work) with it! 🙂

  5. I requested Most Dangerous Book from the library as an ebook thinking I would get it faster that way and I did. Unfortunately they ended up not having a kindle format available. Grr. So now I have to wait even longer. Too bad the Miller wasn’t all you had hoped. Even favorite authors let us down sometimes.

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