- Night of Fire by Colin Thubron
This book is at once extraordinarily complex and extremely simple. The title succinctly conveys the plot...at least that of the present day...an old, (clearly dangerous) Victorian home that has been divided into apartments is burning with six tenants (including the landlord) trapped inside. As we see each tenant's room catch aflame, we journey into the past and dive fairly deep into each individual life. There is the lone woman, a naturalist, whose love of butterflies is the force that pushes her story forward. There is the priest, whose story focuses on the last months of his training and the other young men who are on the same journey (both a physical one and a spiritual one). There is a neurosurgeon whose life's work involves a deep connection to memory, both as a fragile product of the brain and as something wholly different. As other reviews note, there are many recurring themes and motifs in the individual stories from the suicide of an acquaintance to the presence of butterflies.
I am a character-driven reader...I read to experience lives that are not my own (I'm a people-watcher and I'll strike up a conversation with anyone, but deep connection is hard for me)...and this is a character-driven book. In some ways, its style is one that has been very much overdone in the past 5 years or so, a series of interconnected but stories that create a product in a grey zone between novel and short story collection. Yet, there is also something new and different here.
Thubron's characters are amazingly deep despite only living for a few dozen pages. They are all complex and compelling, though certainly every reader will find one or two stand out (for me, the naturalist was most fascinating while the priest dragged a bit). The brief overlaps are far too numerous to appear as coincidences and yet are, purposely, never really fleshed out. There are some answers suggested, but none proffered as the answer/explanation for what is really happening and what is being said.
I think this is a novel that would benefit from a circular read that wraps back and starts again the moment it finishes. I can't claim, however, to have given it that treatment and don't know when it'll find its way to the nightstand again. Still, a solid 4-star book (5-star scale, book provided free of charge by the publisher in exchange for an honest review).. Recommended for character-driven reader who are ready to fall into a story and to ponder deeper meanings that belie the very simple description of the present day action.
- The Comet Seekers by Helen Sedgwick
I must confess to start that I finished this book, provided to me by the publisher is exchange for a review, several weeks ago. Sometimes I think delays (which I admit are quite common these days!) hamper my ability to write a review, other times I think that a delayed review can be far more telling...esp with my very odd memory..and capture the essence of a story more than an immediate write-up could.
This novel has two primary protagonists but also touches down in moments across several centuries. At the simplest level, it is the love story of Francois and Roisin. At another level, it is an ode to comets. At its core, it is about time, about love, about memory, and about the past that is always present in, well, the present. It begins at the end of the story, when Francois and Roisin are (finally, an odd word for a preface but an accurate one) connecting under the Antarctic sky. The reader is then taken back in their lives. Roisin's arc centers on a love of the night sky and a complex relationship with a cousin, a relationship that is intense in youth (intensified by being taboo) and teeters on the edge of soul-matehood but is tested by different destinies and dreams. In Francois's story, the focus is on his tie to his mother who is either insane or possesses a deep, inherited gift that allows her to see deceased relatives whenever a comet passes overhead (it is these predecessors whose stories are told in the chapters dating back much further in time, always tied to the appearance of a comet).
There are moments in this book that feel so very intense. And there are moments that feel desperately disappointing, when the writer falls back on what feels like too-simple tropes (e.g., near-misses in the histories of the two protagonists). There are moments of magic and others that feel forced (including the connection to a famous tapestry and the characters depicted thereon). I did enjoy the lessons about history and science and appreciated the research that went into the book. And overall, and I recognize this is such a wimpy statement, I think I liked it. But, like a comet blazing across the horizon and then disappearing into the dark, it faded very fast.
3.5 stars. Readers should be looking for love stories that can be more about history than romance, for a heavy dose of magic, for a little bit of science, and for a lot emotion....but also ready to accept a few literary foibles and a story that burns hot at moments and fades near-to-dark at others.