I was skeptical about The Book of Fires. It’s the first non-“women’s fiction” review title I received from Penguin Canada, and my experiences with women’s lit had left a bad taste in my mouth. So although I was promised a great book, I didn’t have the most open mind going into it.
The story is about Agnes Trussel, a teenager in the 1750s. Growing up in an impoverished farming family in Sussex, England, she finds herself pregnant. Horrified, naive and ashamed, she runs away to London to save her family the shame and the burden. Alone and fairly helpless in the city, she ends up working as the assistant to John Blacklock, an earnest widowed fireworks maker, hoping and praying neither he nor the two women who keep his house will notice her condition.
The first twenty-five pages of the novel are slow, and the first-person narration seems clunky. I didn’t like the protagonist, mostly because I had a hard time hearing her voice as true. The intensity of her naivete seemed implausible. The story moved too slowly.
After that, however, things picked up. By the middle of the book, Agnes had won me over. I began to trust her voice, and through it I got to know the small cast of characters. And though the first-person device seemed roughly implemented at the beginning of the novel, further into it Borodale uses it expertly. For not only did I get to know the other characters through Agnes’s experience of them, I got to know Agnes from how the others seemed to see her – whether Agnes noticed their insights or not.
It’s Borodale’s use of language that’s getting a lot of attention for this book, and with good reason. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with a more internally consistent and brilliant use of metaphor. Agnes is almost painfully naïve. Her knowledge of the world before she fled to London consisted only of her experience of the farm and the farming community. Throughout the novel, the vast majority of which takes place in the crowded filth of London and in the pungent fireworks workshop, Agnes makes sense of everything by likening it to what was familiar to her from her past.
Blacklock hands Agnes a book to illustrate a lesson he’s trying to impart: “I pore over [the diagrams] with curiosity, as one would look at marks in the mud on the edge of a pond showing that certain birds had been there, or water rats, or the dogs of poachers, yet somehow not believing in them absolutely.”
Agnes mulls what someone has told her: “As we walk on, his words turn over slowly in my mind, as even a slight trickle of water down from the leat will turn the mill wheel round on its axle.”
The language is simple, and in its simplicity it often approaches brilliance. The story is a slow, persistent burn. With a hundred pages to go, I found myself reading obsessively, and my obsession paid off. There’s a clever, satisfying twist at the end of The Book of Fires. One that is certainly worth wading through the first chapters for.
Period fiction is not usually a genre I seek out, yet I loved this book. I recommend it to anyone who does enjoy period fiction as a habit, to those who enjoy a slow-burning character study, and to anyone interested in fireworks. In fact, I surprised myself by lavishing praise upon this book to pretty much everyone I encountered over the few days after I finished reading it.