The Fire Starters, by Jan Carson, Doubleday, 304 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1781620465
Jan Carson’s second novel, The Fire Starters, opens with a wry, garrulous third-person narrator expounding on the ironies of contemporary Belfast, a place where there are seemingly “two sides” to everything – especially “the truth”. From the first chapter, we are on unstable narrative ground: “This is Belfast. This is not Belfast … It is possible to go blind staring at the shape of it.” For it is “better to avoid calling anything a spade in this city”, where “names … are trying too hard to pass for truth”. This extends to Belfast’s self-declared “post-conflict” status, a neatly packaged “official” designation that belies the city’s complicated lived realities. The narrator remarks: “The Troubles are over now. They told us so … We did not believe it in the newspapers or on the television. We did not believe it in our bones … The Troubles have only just begun. This is hardly true either.”
As in her marvellous short story collection Children’s Children (2016), Carson’s latest book skilfully blends magic realism, absurdism and surrealism to explore the complexities of Northern Ireland’s “post-conflict” society, and how this hyphenated existence holds the past and present in dangerous tension.
The Fire Starters, Ireland’s winner of the 2019 European Union Prize for Literature, is a vivid depiction of the self-replicating, cyclical nature of traumatic experience and its transgenerational effects. Carson writes: “The Troubles is always written with a capital T as if it were an event … with a fixed beginning and end … History will no doubt prove it is actually a verb; an action that can be done to people over and over again.” Set during a summer of violence “sixteen years after the Troubles”, her novel explodes the cultural myths that structure quotidian life in East Belfast. The neighbourhood’s streets shimmer and seethe with the heat of a suppressed historical rage that erupts into the present via the titular character. The Fire Starter is a menacing figure who incites local youths to perpetrate what “will become known as the Summer of the Tall Fires. It will be written with a capital S, because of its association with the Troubles.” It is a chaotic atmosphere of apocalyptic proportion:
When the bonfires burn, the flames leap a hundred feet into the air. The entire city is shrouded in a blanket fog. The heat is an angry god. Nearby windows buckle. Satellite dishes droop, like week-old flowers wilting in the vase. People cannot remain inside their homes for fear of being cooked. Children scream, in fear and thin delight, and sometimes the whole structure slides loose. The fire comes swimming down the street as if it is a burst volcano. This is a glorious thing to look upon, from the periphery, with a cold can in hand.
Carson’s fiction satirically registers the peculiarities of Belfast’s hyperlocalised sociocultural memory and the ways in which multiple myths and iconographic symbols constellate around its nodal points:
In the East, people are torn. It is part of their culture to burn things, yet they cannot possibly condone burning without order. The right and wrong of this is dragged backwards and forwards across the little streets … There have always been bonfires in this part of the city … There is a history behind this practice. Something about King Billy picking his way through a darkened city, and the bonfires marking his way. Something about setting everyone up for the Orange parades on the Twelfth. Most people cannot remember the story in any detail but the memory of fire is hard to forget.
For middle-aged protagonist Sammy Agnew, a loyalist from the inner East, “the memory of fire” evokes traumatic memories from his youth, when he was involved with a paramilitary organisation during the conflict. Sammy was “wild keen on burning cars back in the day”, when he and “a bunch of hard lads” would drive out to the countryside and “put the fear of God into every Taig they came across”. They “flagged cars down with torches, held their guns against the driver’s head”, and ordered them to sing “The Sash My Father Wore” before beating them and burning their cars by the roadside. In a recent interview, Carson stated that she based this disturbing scene on historical reality, recalling,
[When] I was just starting to drive, around where I lived there was this spate of people being pulled out of cars and made to sing ‘The Sash’. I was a terrible Protestant and I didn’t know all the words, so I was always terrified that I would get pulled over and that I wouldn’t remember.
Elsewhere she explains of her writing process: “I had to aim for a thin, almost fluid line between my own lived experience and the landscape I [am] describing in my novel.” Thus, as a means of working through this frightening personal memory, she reimagines the traumatised landscape of the Troubles and how it shapes the lived experiences of people on both sides of the divide.
When he becomes a father, Sammy attempts to distance himself from his past by burying his long-held fury and moving his family to the suburbs on the outskirts of East Belfast. “Sammy keeps himself on the edge of things now, toeing the line,” and initially believes that he has escaped the overdetermining influence of his birthplace. However, “The map of its little streets and rivers is stamped into him, like a second set of fingerprints … Sammy can’t stand this place, can’t quite curse it either.” As the narrator observes, “No matter how far he goes” in “his everyday thinking – which is the hardest place to achieve distance – he’ll still be a son of this city, a disloyal son … He is this place, as his children are this place.”
Nearby lives Jonathan Murray, a young, strait-laced doctor whose middle-class milieu seems worlds away from Sammy’s environment, but it is actually just up the road in Orangefield. The narrator notes,
It isn’t just money that keeps one man from mixing with the other. It’s … a whole different way of carrying yourself through life. Jonathan couldn’t say he knows this city like Sammy knows it, for knowing implies familiarity and he’s been holding himself at a distance for as long as he can remember. It isn’t home to him. It doesn’t even feel close.
Both men have a fraught relationship with their hometown and they are finally forced to engage directly with it, and with each other, when they become concerned for their children’s welfare.
Linking Sammy and Jonathan’s storylines are the “Unfortunate Children” of Belfast, whose narratives interject within the plot. The city is home to an enchanting group of misfit children whose parents hide them in plain sight, and their stories interrupt the novel’s trajectory as they struggle to assert themselves as individuals. They possess dazzling supernatural features – wings, wheels instead of feet, the ability to see the future, or to turn into a boat, hands that turn everything they touch into Christmas – which prove too much for their ordinary, stressed-out parents to handle. Meanwhile, Jonathan and Sammy appear to have “unfortunate children” of their own.
Jonathan suspects that his daughter Sophie is an otherworldly being, for she is the result of his liaison with a terrifying and resplendent siren. One night, he answers the emergency helpline and goes on-call to aid an apparently stranded mythical sea creature, only to be seduced by her. She holds him hostage in his own house for nine months while she soaks in the bath, gestating their baby and running up the gas bill. Immediately after she gives birth, she leaves the newborn in the half-filled kitchen sink and scarpers. Jonathan worries that, like her mother, Sophie will also have an uncanny capacity to manipulate minds with her words. He thinks: “Your mouth is where the world will begin or end … I am waiting to see what will come out of it; to see if you are hers or mine.” Correspondingly, Sammy perceives that his son Mark carries a familiar darkness within him: “He recognized the way his son’s eyes could turn. Like marbles or cold milk.” Sammy blames Belfast for instilling violence within its children, for “this is what he sees every time he looks at Mark: this city, fouling his boy up, just like it once ruined him.”
The novel powerfully illustrates the fracturing force of transgenerational trauma upon the family unit, and the ways that repressed grief seeps into domestic life. When Mark begins to isolate himself as an adolescent, his parents
let him go. He is still in the house but he is essentially gone. The weight of him bears slowly down on them. It is a kind of grief dripping from the attic, through the floorboards and ceiling, into their bedroom. It forces its way between them and they aren’t strong enough to resist.
This passage noticeably echoes Belfast-born poet John Hewitt’s assessment of transgenerational trauma in “Awareness of Time” (1948):
In Ireland here it is a different matter;
the past persists in every knuckle and sinew
drips from the eaves to run its lithe ivy over
the white shavings on the floor;
the future can find no crevice to enter by
and cannot be heard at the door
for the din of the keening host.
Similarly to Hewitt, Carson is preoccupied with the recurrence of trauma and the ways “the past persists” in the present through human action and inaction. She discerns: “This is the kind of violence a group of people will do to themselves.” Northern Ireland’s self-perpetuating, internecine conflict symptomises its unresolved past and forestalls its future. The Fire Starters textualises this phenomenon via eruptive violence and intrusive memory, which disrupt narrative teleology. Much of Carson’s writing contests the problematic myth of “normalisation” propagated by the post-Agreement dispensation – itself an act of violence that sublates the history of the conflict, capitalises it, and markets it as innocuous “heritage”. Her new novel re-envisions Belfast’s cityscape, rendering an affecting portrait of a place that is haunted by its past but also subtended by an undercurrent of miraculous hope in the form of its “unfortunate children”. For she recognises that “these days, there’s a … hope rising off the city, swelling mostly in the young”. As Carson emphasises in a recent essay, “imagination at its best is a kind of extreme empathy”. Accordingly, her fiction highlights the extraordinary potential of the younger generations, and signals the urgent need for Northern Ireland to take responsibility for its children by providing them with a viable future. Carson works her elemental magic in The Fire Starters, which showcases her relentlessly gripping, wildly inventive and slyly subversive prose, limning a spectacular Belfast tale that won’t let you go.
Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado is Visiting Research Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast. She has taught at Maynooth University, the University of Edinburgh, and the Scottish Universities’ International Summer School (SUISS). She is co-editor of Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland (New Island Books, 2017). Dawn has also published in Irish Studies Review, Breac, Callaloo, Open Library of Humanities, Sunday Business Post, Four Nations History, and Writing the Troubles. She is a regular contributor to the Dublin Review of Books, The Honest Ulsterman and The Irish Times. Follow her on Twitter @drdawnmiranda