Thursday 22 August 2019

A smouldering fictional firecracker set in the powder keg of East Belfast

Fiction: The Fire Starters

Jan Carson

Doubleday €11.99

Jan Carson
Jan Carson

Justine Carbery

Northern Ireland has come under the spotlight recently in contemporary Irish fiction but The Fire Starters by Ballymena-born author Jan Carson is the first novel I have read with Protestant East Belfast as its backdrop.

This stunning book was nothing like I expected, veering from gritty realism, through magic realism to an insightful exploration of parental relationships.

What a treat when a book so imaginative, original and sharply written comes your way.

The novel criss-crosses between the lives of socially awkward Jonathan, who is bringing up his daughter alone, and Sammy Agnew, who used to be a Loyalist hardman, recently relocated to a more affluent suburb, trying to put his violent past behind him.

Interlaced between these realistic narratives come irresistible fantastical vignettes about children with extraordinary superpowers.

There's the Boy with Wheels for Feet, the Boy who could See the Future in every Liquid Surface, the Girl who Turns into a Boat.

These 'Unfortunates' provide some solace to the two fathers struggling to understand their children.

And all the while Belfast burns. Not because of the usual 80ft bonfires of the Twelfth but because a young man, The Fire Starter, posts a video on YouTube, inciting the youth to acts of arson, as a form of civil disobedience.

Sammy Agnew fears that it is his cold-hearted teenage son Mark behind the raging fires and feels powerless in the face of the ensuing chaos.

Sammy has tried to move beyond his paramilitary background; the beatings, bombings and racketeering.

At one time he delighted in dragging Catholics out of their cars to see if they could sing The Sash, followed by a ritual burning of cars.

He loved the thrill and power of it.

But now he wonders if "the same dark thing" is in Mark, "his own hot anger…. like ice inside him, waiting to melt and once liquid, boil".

Looking at his troubled son with a mixture of terror and love drives him to distraction.

He is cracking under the pressure and visits his GP, Dr Jonathan Murray, looking for help.

Jonathan, a different social class to Sammy, was raised by indifferent parents who emigrated to New Zealand when he was only 16, leaving him behind, a solitary friendless boy.

He becomes a doctor and once, when on call, he is seduced by a Siren, who leaves him after giving birth to their daughter Sophie.

He loves his beautiful newborn but also fears the destruction she could inflict on anyone hearing her potentially manipulative voice.

So he contemplates trying to enforce a world of silence.

But Sophie has opened him up to the world, forcing him to interact with others and he is no longer sure if he can carry out his plan.

Both men struggle with fatherhood and they connect during that burning hot Belfast summer, where tensions are high and fire threatens to engulf them all.

The writing and the imaginative reach of this unusual novel is superb.

A real cracker.

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