by Jane Borodale
360 pages, Penguin Books
Review by Melissa Conway
It’s rare for me to read without eating sunflower seeds in the shell at the same time. I can only eat so many before my lips begin to wither from the salt, and in this way, I limit the amount of time I spend reading. Once I’ve had my fill of seeds, I invariably set the book aside.
Not so with The Book of Fires. I can’t remember the last time an author held me so enthralled that I continued on long after the seeds were gone. I began the book on Saturday, picked it back up on Sunday and found myself ignoring a rather pressing list of chores and obligations just to finish it.
I tend to keep my reading light, so I generally stick to genre fiction. Literary fiction often hits too close to home for me; I do not like to cry, but am easily susceptible. And there is often a surplus of description to be found in serious works. Description can make or break a book for me. I prefer to find it sprinkled in among the action so my imagination can fill in the blanks. If it gets too heavy-handed, it becomes tedious and I begin flipping past entire sections. Jane Borodale’s debut novel is brimming with detail that I would find annoying in a lesser work. It takes an uncommonly well-written book for the minutia to fascinate me.
This story begins in England in 1752, after Parliamentary Enclosure has begun fencing off property and raising rent. In the country, the poor are forced to work harder for less. The narrative is told first-person-present by seventeen-year-old Agnes Trussel, a country girl with a large family. Immediately Agnes plunges into meticulous detail of place; sights, sounds, smells. Her family is forced to slaughter the pig early this year. It is a family event that most everyone participates in; a grim, specific series of tasks. Throughout the rest of the novel, small incidents cause Agnes to recall the particulars of the slaughter, a theme depicting how commonplace the gruesome was in those times.
Agnes is unmarried and hiding an early pregnancy that came about from what would be considered rape in this day and age. To prevent her family suffering from her shame, she runs away to London with gold coins she stole from a dead neighbor. The theft haunts her both as a morally reprehensible thing to have done, and as fear that she will be caught and hung.
Lost in London, she has a great stroke of luck securing employment as assistant to Mr. John Blacklock, pyrotechnist. A widower, he is aloof, gruff, and consumed by his work. Agnes, who was taught to read but cannot write, is eager to learn. The reader learns along with her about fireworks in the eighteenth century, an indulgence of the rich; how they were made; the alchemy and danger. She works hard, impressing Blacklock with her enthusiasm and understanding of his obsession. She has no illusions about her future there—when the pregnancy is discovered she expects to be turned out into the street.
This is not a romance novel. Agnes is young and naïve, but has no romantic flights of fancy. Her example of love is a mother harried by country life and worn down from having babies and a mercurial father who drinks. As the fetus grows within her, Agnes is consumed by fear. There is no one she can turn to. Within the Blacklock household, she knows she’ll be able to conceal her pregnancy from the blowsy, death-obsessed housekeeper and the dim-witted but watchful maid for only so long. Blacklock is chronically ill and nursing the agony of losing his wife in childbirth. Agnes’ one acquaintance is a young woman of questionable means who directs her to an abortionist. Her one chance for salvation is the flirtatious Cornelius Soul, a gunpowder distributor with loose business ethics. Agnes is faced with choices, none of them good.
If I haven’t made myself clear, let me reiterate: this is an exceptional novel. There is nothing I found lacking, not in characterization or motivation or even in the description which immerses the reader in Agnes’ world. The ending is ultimately satisfying and strangely plausible despite the way the narrative spirals down, down into a despair that seems insurmountable.