|THE FIRE STARTERS
Jan Carson (jancarsonwrites.wordpress.com)
It’s a hot summer in East Belfast and, as the Twelfth of July looms, tensions begin to rise as high as the bonfires dotted around this part of the city. When Stormont imposed a thirty feet height limit on the Eleventh Night bonfires, it causes outrage: cries of impinged civil liberties lead eventually to violence. A video appears on the internet, a person in a balaclava who calls itself The Fire Starter. It urges people to start fires across the city, at a height of thirty feet, in protest against this new law. As the city burns, two men from very different backgrounds discover that their children are capable of terrible things, and decide that no-one else can stop them from destroying the city.
Sammy Agnew is a reformed “bad man”. Once upon a time Sammy was part of one Loyalist paramilitary group or another, an old-fashioned terrorist who caused havoc to ensure no-one forgot their cause. Nowadays Sammy lives in a big house in a nice part of East Belfast with his wife – whom he no longer loves – and his oldest son, Mark, who may as well not live at home for all that he emerges from his bedroom. When Sammy sees the video of the person calling itself the Fire Starter, he recognises his son immediately: there’s something in the slope of a shoulder, or the way he’s standing. Sammy is afraid that Mark is going to follow in his footsteps, that his own past is the reason for his son’s destructive tendencies.
While he lives in the same part of the city as Sammy Agnew, Jonathan Murray’s life has been much different. The son of privileged – and cold – parents, Jonathan found himself far removed from the goings-on in Troubles-ravaged Belfast. Now a GP, Jonathan finds himself under the spell of a siren. When she gives birth to his child and disappears, Jonathan can’t help but worry what might happen when his daughter learns to speak. Hiring a deaf nanny, and slowly getting together the equipment and drugs he needs, Jonathan has a decisive plan, because while Sophie takes after him in many ways, he’s sure she’ll get the power of her voice from her mother.
Jan Carson’s second novel takes a look at post-Troubles Belfast through the eyes of these two men. Integrating a sort of mythology into reality, Carson examines the city in a period where everyone seems to lose their mind – the three months of summer – and Belfast becomes, once more, like no other city on Earth. Carson’s description of the city is beautiful and lyrical, focussing as much on the people who live here as on the buildings and streets of which it is composed. Carson captures the madness perfectly, and while outsiders will come away none the wiser, they’ll at least feel like they’ve taken part in something special.
While The Fire Starters is very much grounded in reality (ok, so the Fire Starter doesn’t exist, but he’s a perfectly logical and realistic reaction to the sort of law that Carson introduces in the book), there’s a mythological element to the story, in the form of Jonathan Murray’s lover – a siren, if all the clues are to be believed – and a small group of families that he discovers while trying to decide what to do with his daughter: the Unfortunate Children of East Belfast, a small group that includes “The Girl Who Could Only Fall”, “The Boy With Wheels for Feet” and “The Girl Who is Occasionally a Boat”. Interestingly, none of these unfortunate children seem out of place in a place as surreal as Carson’s Belfast.
There are entire quotable chapters in this excellent novel, which makes it difficult to highlight any in particular. The first chapter, “This is Belfast” (“This is Belfast. This is not Belfast.”) is a perfect example, and is likely to suck any reader into the story from the outset. This is a city that Carson knows and loves, a people that she understands, and she manages to capture much of that love and understanding on the page. We find ourselves identifying with both Sammy and Jonathan – even those of us who come from “the other side”, as Carson so colloquially puts it – as they try to take back control of their lives. The story’s end, when it comes, is as beautifully-handled as the rest of the story, an ambiguous note that leaves the reader to ponder the outcome and decide for themselves what exactly has happened.
Smart and funny with just a little tinge of darkness, The Fire Starters is one of the finest novels ever written about Belfast and the strange rituals that define the city. Jan Carson has a writing style that is unique and engaging, and that brings these characters and their surroundings to life. Defying the often-rigid boundaries between so-called “literary” and genre fiction, it’s the perfect antidote to our increasingly dystopian world and a story that will stick with you for a long time afterwards. Northern Irish fiction at its finest, Jan Carson is sure to appeal to a much wider audience, and The Fire Starters is one book that you definitely should not miss this year.