Spectacular At Once Grittily Real, Wildly Magical And Insanely Alluring A Siren Song Of A Novel DONAL RYAN A Brilliant, Wry Novel, Fizzing With Energy BARNEY NORRISDr Jonathan Murray Fears His New Born Daughter Is Not As Harmless As She SeemsSammy Agnew Is Wrestling With His Dark Past, And Fears The Violence In His Blood Lurks In His Son, TooThe City Is In Flames And The Authorities Are Losing Control As Matters Fall Into Frenzy, And As The Lines Between Fantasy And Truth, Right And Wrong, Begin To Blur, Who Will These Two Fathers Choose To Protect Dark, Propulsive And Thrillingly Original, This Tale Of Fierce Familial Love And Sacrifice Fizzes With Magic And Wonder In brief This is an odd book It s well written but it is somewhat off the wall Aspects I simply loved, aspects were strange, aspects didn t work for me.In fullThis is set in a Belfast that seems quite recognisable with its sectarian divisions as well as cultural ones However the book does stray from anything I would associate with normality fairly quickly The first chapter left me a little puzzled and it was a while before I could get into the story It is the Summer of the Tall Fires in Belfast and Sammy is concerned about his children We then meet Jonathan actually Dr Jonathan Murray a GP and Sophie, his daughter, and the strangeness of the book begins to develop It is often dark and down to earth and at times poetic as it follows in the main these two threads that inevitably come together.Other characters do flit among the pages a little oddly initially However Jonathan and Sammy are the main focus of this book We learn about the lives both current and past Sammy has a background in the Troubles which is dark but felt authentic to me as did the rest of his story However it is Jonathan whose story grabbed me and kept me engaged To call it somewhat bizarre is probably something of an understatement however I felt myself smiling with at times and wincing too For someone who seems unlikeable he is remarkably likeable I don t think I ve ever read anything quite like this before It puts a foot in the fantasy stream in a very effective way It looks at life in Belfast in an interesting way I guess to me it is about parenthood in the main and the way your views turn and change over time I imagine I must be fortunate though probably quite normal to not have had to face what Sammy and Jonathan do Some time after actually finishing the book I m still not quite sure what I think and it However I am glad I read it and it will stay with me for some time to come I m sure.Note I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair reviewhttp viewson.org.uk fiction the fir Jan Carson sThe Fire Startersexamines fatherhood in a really interesting way The novel follows two separate narrative strands both set in East Belfast but one is a realistic look at criminal elements and the other is a fantastical tale involving children with supernatural abilities These two stories occasionally connect, only to glance off each other like billiard balls, remaining mostly self contained It s a very odd juxtaposition but one which surprisingly works well.Each story follows a father who fears his child, believing them to be powerful, malevolent and destructive In one, Sammy believes his twenty something son is the anonymous Fire Starter, a rogue individual who has attracted a large online following, and is inciting them to commit a series of devastating arsons known as the Tall Fires throughout the city In the other, single dad Jonathan is convinced that his infant daughter is a mythological creature, with the potential to do great harm he discovers a support group for parents of similarly afflicted kids with a range of bizarre abilities These two men s lives seem worlds apart, but each is grappling with similar fears anxieties, questions of heredity, and how best to love their monstrous children.Jonathan s fear of his baby daughter manifests in strange ways but his emotional and sleep deprived state is believable By embodying parental worries in a fantastical conceit, Carson allows us to look at them aslant, and by juxtaposing a separate, completely realistic storyline, drives the point home further still Parenthood is weird and causes grown adults to behave in ways that are hardly rational sometimes Newborn babies are such strange and wondrous creatures, they might well seem to us like mythological beings A world that was safe and comfortable becomes suddenly menacing and full of dangers once you have a tiny human to protect.The other aspect of this novel that worked really well for me is Carson s prose There are some terrific zoomed out descriptions of Belfast and its inhabitants, and of the fires cutting a swathe through the city These are so vivid and brilliantly done, I just had to stop and read them over again Its hybrid nature makes this a tricky book to recommend, but if you are open to something a bit different, do give it a go 4 stars. I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review This book, given the very recent events in Derry, feels very of its time It highlights a Northern Ireland plagued by sectarian divisions, mixing cultural, parental issues with a magical, and odd perspective to create a story that feels very unique yet strangely familiar At the heart, this is story of fathers and children How we raise them, how we teach them about the world around us, and what it means to have a child who is different The main characters are Sammy and Jonathan Sammy has an adult son and a history steeped in the Troubles He s constantly trying to hide the anger that sits within himself, and at the same time worries that his son may have inherited that anger Jonathan is a single parent to a newborn baby girl, incredibly standoffish, emotionally awkward, and condescending to his patients as their GP One of his patients is Sammy As the story unfolds, we see how the lives of these two men intertwine around their growing concerns for their children, and we catch a glimpse of a wider secular community of gifted children I really enjoyed the sections told from Jonathan s perspective, and found him so irritating yet loveable at the same time His obvious discomfort around all of his patients, and his ineptitude at understanding feelings and emotions was both hilarious and sad His further inability to communicate properly with anyone, linked to his father unloved past, made him very endearing to me Sammy I was less enthralled by, although I did find the sections with his wife quite touching The writing is able to capture that feeling of solidarity and deep seated friendship in life long couples very well I liked the many references to Northern Ireland and The Troubles It felt like the author really understood and felt the pain, anger and struggles of this time It s also like a little love letter to the country, and the many descriptions of the area made me feel like I was there, with the characters It felt very believable and real The writing is odd at times, taking on an almost stream of conscious type approach that can be difficult to get a handle on At certain points I struggled with the flow, and had to reread large sections of the text to truly understand what was being said The plot and pacing is also a little all over the place This isn t an action packed read It unfolds slowly, and is heavily character driven, and if that isn t really your thing you re never going to enjoy this It feels very cerebral, and not much happens other than lots of talking for quite some time A sometimes quiet book, that s a little odd and a lot strange but with a big heart for characters and Northern Ireland. It took me a little while to get on board with the style of The Fire Starters Barney Norris described it as fizzing with energy , which about sums it up The style feels a little stream of consciousness at times too, a little frenetic But as the novel progresses it becomes evident that this fits the narrative fires are raging across Belfast faster than they can be put out.Set in east Belfast the story focuses mostly on two men worried about their children and what they might be capable of one Jonathan who is concerned about his newborn daughter and q the other Sammy is worried about his adult son.I d agree with another quote from the blurb, too that this is fiercely original At times it is grittily real, at others there are magical elements Recommended Thank you Netgalley and Random House UK Transworld Publishers for the advance copy, which was provided in exchange for an honest review. As I stated in my last wrap up I read a lot of solid books By this I mean that the novels were good and I liked them but I wanted a WOW factor The Fire Starters was the exception Trust me, this is a WOW book from start to finish.The setting of the book is Belfast 2014 The Troubles are over but someone is starting a series of fires around the city Sammy Agnew thinks that his son, Mark, is the arsonist After all, when Sammy was young he caused a lot of havoc and he thinks that the violence gene was passed on.In another storyline, Jonathan, who is the result of uncaring parents, is scared that his baby daughter can injure the human race As he is a doctor, Jonathan has a medical solution which cannot be considered ethical.The Fire Starters is a magical realist novel Creatures roam the pages, bizarre things happen and surreal situations occur.But the fantasy element is only one part of the novel.The book is mainly about father child relationships Both fathers in the book feel that they have to sacrifice something so that their children may prosper, no matter how dangerous they are Eventually Jonathan and Sammy s destinies do cross which influences their final decision.The other theme in the book is politics Carson makes some swipes at gentrification, values and Belfast before and after The Troubles Carson is a gently humorous writer, so I did grin at these sections.The Fire Starters is a fantastic read The magical realist bits are a joy to read and combined with the gritty Sammy plotline works The majority of the writing does have that distinctive Irish style like a person telling a tale down in a pub and there many moments of pure pleasure None of the characters in the book are redeemable but the reader will care for them.In the grand tradition of Rushdie, Garcia Marquez and Allende, Carson is able to ascend into flights of fancy but manages to use that as a way of exposing the grim realities of life. This is Jan Carson s second novel She has a high profile in Northern Ireland as a young writer who has written novels, flash fiction, and short stories She often is featured as a discussant with other writers I ll see her in mid July in Armagh, Northern Ireland in conversation with the writer Kevin Barry Her first novel Malcolm Orange Disappears was set in the United States, where Carson spent time This novel is firmly set in East Belfast home of Van Morrison, and C.S Lewis , a working class Protestant stronghold July is the Marching Season for Protestant Unionists, who are members of and adherents to the Orange Order They are fervently dedicated to the Orange cause, and commemorate the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 Here William of Orange defeated the Catholic James II who was attempting to reclaim the English throne On July 12th every year, Orangemen and women march throughout Northern Ireland On the night before, the 11th, huge bonfires burn everywhere bonfire custom is a theme in the novel as residents work to construct bigger and bigger flammable towers of combustible items including furniture But this year the towers are growing way beyond the height limits, and soon fires are happening everywhere, placing people, homes, and businesses in danger It becomes apparent that the other fires are being set by one person who begins to brag about his exploits on the internet Chapter 8 Eleventh, Twelfth, Thirteenth is an absolutely stunning description of these days in July the lambeg drums , the Orange sashes, fifes, and the Union Jacks flying everywhere.The second theme, which is very much Jan Carson s usual style, is the theme of the Unfortunate Children These are children who are different They may have wings, superpowers, or even be potentially dangerous to others The parents of these children are often desperate It seems that in East Belfast, there is an abundance of this kind of children, and the parents have a doctor who advises them, and brings them together in a support system Children of this sort are found all over the city, but it is only in East Belfast where the parents gather together middle class parents have the resources to get support privately Two of the fathers in the novel have challenging children, and their dilemmas drive the story.This was a hard to put down novel for me Carson s style is brilliant not really magical realism Perhaps there is a name for it that I haven t come across The novel is grounded in the reality of East Belfast life, while at the same time, threaded through with the bizarre, magical and at times terrifying. Absolutely loved The Fire Starters Maybe it was all the references to Connswater Tesco where I used to do my shopping though it was better when it was still Stewarts.This is a comic novel set in the heart of loyalist East Belfast Sammy Agnew is a decommissioned paramilitary trying to cope with civilian life Jonathan Murray is a GP whose heart is not really in his work Both share a feeling of irrelevance both share concerns that their children are growing up to become monsters Much of the humour is derived from a deadpan explanation of the cultural s of the protestant working man With a straight fact, we are told of the traditions of the Twelfth the need to assert cultural supremacy over the neighbouring Catholics by the building of immensely tall bonfires and the injustice of the lack of appreciation for these acts of fealty by the State that they are designed to venerate And there is Jonathan s first person narrative that sneers at his patients especially the older and poorer sections of society as he himself feasts on red wine and pizza Then, every now and then, the Sammy and Jonathan narratives will break for a vignette of a child with some extraordinary and esoteric superpower with some superpowers useful than others Being able to turn into a boat, for example, is probably less useful than, say, the ability to fly Both Sammy and Jonathan are simultaneously grotesque and loveable There is a sense that they put on an external act to satisfy others expectations but underneath there is a genuine human They feel real.The novel is also hugely referential Some references to popular culture, music, the Anonymous movement, politicians are quite obvious Others are subtle there s than a hint, for example, of the NIO Cats In The Cradle advert or the Midnight s Children superpowers And then there s this idea of linking prodigy to fire starters Spotting these references adds enormously to the fun.The plot as it unfolds is a masterpiece It leads the reader off to expect some kind of terrorist police procedural but in fact is a really insightful look at the relationships between parents and children the aspirations we have for our kids and how we handle things when they don t turn out quite the way we expected the way we understand their uniqueness in a world where other people s children blur into a single society I really cannot find fault in The Fire Starters I wholeheartedly recommend this novel. For whatever reason I never tire of reading about the Troubles, but The Fire Starters is not your average Troubles book Set in modern day East Belfast, Jan Carson imagines a series of fires that break out throughout the city, initiated by an enigmatic figure referred to as the Fire Starter, who revels in the blood lust that his havoc causes Amidst this violence we have two fathers, Sammy Agnew, an old man and former paramilitary, and Jonathan Murray, a socially awkward new father, both of whom fear their own children, as Sammy begins to suspect that his son is the cause of the Tall Fires, and Jonathan begins to suspect that his newborn daughter is a Siren.This is a singular, inventive, tragic, and wildly funny book about the legacy of violence and the lasting scars it leaves on a community The novel s central conceit is reminiscent of Milkman, and of other quintessential Northern Irish lit that terror begins at home, that trust cannot automatically be extended to one s own family but Jan Carson s interpretation of this theme is far abstract than any I ve seen before I ll be honest, I m so relieved that I didn t know there was going to be a magical realism element to this book before picking it up, because as I m sure you all know by now, magical realism almost never works for me but fortunately, Carson shows us how it s done This book quite literally mythologizes the Troubles as the threat of Sophie the maybe Siren looms large over Jonathan, but her narrative role is ambiguous is Jonathan merely appropriating the grandiosity of the cultural narrative he was raised into, or is Sophie actually a danger to society As Jonathan fears for the future, Sammy reminisces on the past and the violent role he played in the conflict in the 1970s he fears that he can never wash his hands clean, and that his actions have irrevocably damaged his son As I m sure you can tell, I loved this Jan Carson s writing is sharp and funny and piercing the fusion of perspectives works magnificently the examination of Belfast s history of violence and the ever present threat of its resurgence is timely and unapologetic And this is, frankly, one of the most original things I ve read in a very long time. This is a power worth believing in I m not at all sad for Ella Penney I m sad for her parents who do not understand what they ve been given Who may well miss the most glorious part of her The Fire Starters, by Jan Carson, is a tale of two fathers struggling to gain control of events surrounding their offspring Set in contemporary East Belfast during an unusually long, hot summer it perfectly captures the voice, quirks and insular concerns of the local community There is a dash of magical realism that may be read as possibility or metaphor It all adds depth to a tale of parental concerns for children, who insist on developing as individuals despite best efforts to mould them as approved.Dr Jonathan Murray is a single parent caring for his newborn daughter, Sophie Having been raised in the knowledge that his own parents had never planned to have a child, and then been left behind as a teenager when they emigrated to New Zealand, he has few pointers to good parenting other than practical knowledge gained from his profession.Jonathan has little positive experience of any close relationship The few friendships he formed whilst at university bore little resemblance to those depicted on American television The time spent with Sophie s mother has left him afraid of the power their child may unleash as she develops.Forced to return to work in order to pay the bills, Jonathan hires a nanny He takes what precautions he can to protect his child from outside influences but believes that, longer term, drastic measures will be necessary to keep the rest of the world safe from Sophie.Sammy Agnew has a violent and bloody past that he put behind him when he and his wife had their children Two have now flown the nest but the eldest, Mark, still lives a nocturnal existence in the attic upstairs When local politicians decide to limit the height of the loyalist community s July bonfires citing health and safety there are calls for protest in the form of widespread arson attacks Sammy fears that Mark may have inherited the anger he himself, at times, can barely suppress and become involved in events that could lead to tragedy.Growing ever despairing, Sammy seeks help from his doctor and thereby meets Jonathan Dr Murray has also recently been consulted by the mother of a child born with wings but who cannot fly Even in this small corner of the city he discovers there are numerous parents struggling to deal with children whose particular gifts, characteristics and behaviours cause them issues They do not fit within what society is willing to accept Despite this, Jonathan still regards Sophie as a special case He advises Sammy to act for the wider good The tension ratchets up as the reader realises how Jonathan plans to follow similar advice in dealing with Sophie.The author has a knack for capturing the nuances of everyday conversation and activity Jonathan s interactions with the lady receptionists at his GP practice are a delight His discomfort in any company is astutely portrayed Sammy and his wife offer a picture of a long married couple who quietly coexist whilst longing for their past selves Every character, major and minor, adds to the humour and pathos redolent of this still troubled city.There have been a number of novels published recently offering windows into life in Belfast the experience and legacy of The Troubles Those that I have read focused on areas to the west of the city The Fire Starters captures the idiosyncrasies of people living to the East from the narrow inner city terraces to the affluent Castlereagh Hills The resentments and aspirations emanating from these streets are evoked with unstinting authenticity.A delicious and layered tale written with a refreshing lightness that complements its originality and wit Playful yet piercing, this was a joy to read.
Jan Carson is a writer and community arts development officer currently based in Belfast, Northern Ireland She has a BA in English Literature from Queen s University Belfast and an MLitt In Theology and Contemporary Culture from St Andrew s University, Scotland Jan has had short stories published in literary journals on both sides of the Atlantic, has had two of her plays produced for the Belf
- The Fire Starters
- Jan Carson
- 09 January 2019 Jan Carson