WILD FIRES by Sophie Jai

WILD FIRES

Sophie Jai (www.sophiejai.com)

The Borough Press (boroughpress.co.uk)

£14.99

Buy a copy from your favourite independent bookshop

The death of her cousin, Chevy, brings Cassandra’s family together in Toronto for the funeral. As she flies home from London, other family members are en route from Trinidad, where the family’s roots are still firmly bedded. With so many living in such close proximity, tensions arise and cracks turn to fractures, and then to gaping chasms. But why are these people that Cassandra loves the way they are? What is the history behind these tensions and frayed relationships? Hearing stories as she grew up means she only knows part of the story – and the sanitised, carefully curated part at that. Now, while she has them all together, it’s time to find out the whole truth.

let me tell you… when somebody dies, other ghosts come to visit.

Sophie Jai’s first novel, Wild Fires, is nothing less than a triumph. It may seem, at first glance, to not be our usual fare here at Reader Dad, but there is a sort of bleak undercurrent that runs throughout the novel, as Jai examines what family is, and how being with our family changes us, and not always for the better. Set just before the Coronavirus pandemic, Wild Fires puts us in the head of Cassandra, thirtysomething copywriter and aspiring novelist, as she learns the news of the untimely death of her cousin, Chevy. Flying home from London to a cold Toronto winter, we meet the family that Cassandra has left behind: mother, two sisters (one older, one younger) and two Aunties. They all live in the same house which was, until recently, also the home of Chevy, so they’re a close-knit group, with the usual tensions and petty arguments that many will recognise from their own families. They are soon joined by a third Auntie and her husband, and so the scene is set for melodrama galore.

As the story proceeds Jai treats us to flashbacks from when Cassandra was a young girl, and from a much older period, when her mother and aunts were children. The setting for these flashbacks is Trinidad, which the family left for a new life in Canada while Cassandra was still very young, and before her younger sister was born. We can feel the difference between the two locales, as Jai tries – and, more often than not, succeeds – to paint pictures with her beautiful prose. Even those of us who have never been to either place come away with some sense of what they’re like, what the people who live there are like, and how these two contrasting environments have contributed to to the makeup of this tightly-knit, but often dysfunctional, family.

There’s a mystery at the heart of the family, secrets long-kept, a reason for the ever-present tension between Aunties Rani and Sangeetha, and Cassandra is determined to get to the bottom of it. The real challenge is getting the information without causing irreparable damage and breaking the family apart.

Jai’s narrative flows as smoothly as if she were a much more experienced and accomplished writer. But it’s her ability to bring her characters to life – and in some cases larger-than-life – that captures our attention and keeps us reading. We begin, very quickly, to care for these women and we read on, taking as few breaks as possible, to find out what’s in store for them. Frequent use of the sing-song Caribbean dialect serves to add some colour to the story, and to show how resistant to change these women can be, hanging on to speech patterns despite over twenty years of living in Canada.

While Wild Fires is a reasonably serious book, Sophie Jai takes her readers on something of a rollercoaster ride, bringing us to the verge of tears, and making us laugh out loud, often in the space of a single breath, a solitary sentence. When we start reading this excellent story, we place ourselves firmly in the author’s hands, and she knows exactly how to manipulate us, how to involve us in the story so that we might be standing at Chevy’s funeral as his coffin topples off the stand and crashes to the floor, or at the bottom of the stairs in the house listening as one argument or another rages in the kitchen. This is a masterclass in writing character, and we come away so much the better for having read it.

Wild Fires is a beautifully-written and very engaging read. It’s a belter of a debut novel and promises much more from this talented young writer. By turns funny, sad and touching, it demands to be read in as few sittings as possible, and should be a must-read for anyone that enjoys a good character-driven story. Not to be missed, at any cost.

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