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Jan Carson : The Fire Starters

There is a good chance that a novel from Northern Ireland will, at the very least, reference the The Troubles and this book is no exception. It is set sixteen years after the Troubles but their shadow still hangs over Belfast and the nearby area, where this novel is set.

The three main characters in this book can all be said to have psychological issues but only one was directly linked to the Troubles. He is Sammy Agnew, a Protestant, who, during the Troubles , did his bit in terrorising taigs, i.e. Irish Catholics. He has calmed down a bit now and behaves more responsibly. He has three children, Mark, Christopher and Lauren. When she was a child, Lauren had a pathological fear of birds, any bird. This was started by her very rational fear of the local swans but soon spread to all birds and she would scream whenever she saw a bird nearby. She seems to have been more or less cured of it and she and Christopher have both gone off to university, away from home. Mark is different. He seems to be almost psychopathic. As a child he seemed to take delight in causing pain and witnessing it. His worst offence was locking his sister up in the chicken shed to cure her of her bird phobia. It did not work. He still lives at home, having attended the local university to study something to do with computers. He seems to have no friends and spends most of his time in his room. His parents have no idea what he is up to and seem to be somewhat intimidated by him.

Sammy is very much afraid that Mark has followed in the family tradition of violence: You are your father’s son as I was my father’s son and he the same, most likely. Definitely his father before him, who came back from the war and beat a fella dead with bricks for talking shite about the Queen. The rage runs through us all. As mentioned Sammy has toned down though he does not feel happy in himself or, indeed, in his marriage.

The third key character is Jonathan Murray. When we meet him he is a doctor at a local medical practice. He was born just five minutes away from Sammy though the distance between them is continental. It isn’t just money that keeps one man from mixing with the other. It’s education and reputation, and something harder to pin down; a whole different way of carrying yourself through life. Sammy is sure that he and Mrruay are similar you’re in the same boat as me I could tell the first time I clapped eyes on you. You’re just as shit-scared as I am. Just as down and adds There’s this thing inside me that wants to ruin people.

Jonathan was not a wanted child but an accident. If pressed, they [his parents] might have expressed a preference for dogs or garden ornaments over miniature versions of themselves. They did not pay too much attention to him when growing up and he was a complete loner with no friends . When he turned sixteen they emigrated to New Zealand. It was made clear that he was not to accompany them. He qualified as a doctor and lives very much on his own.

One day, when he is on call, he is summoned to the flat of a woman with an unspecified ailment. She is clearly an odd person and takes over his life. He abandons his job. She becomes pregnant. He delivers the child, a girl he christens Sophie. Soon after the mother – we never learn her name – disappears. He is left holding the baby. He is determined to bring her up but as her mother was, in his view, insane and spouted dangerous nonsense, he is determined that she should not learn to speak. He has lost his job as he failed to turn up to work for six months. However they need a locum, as his replacement is on maternity leave so he returns to his old job, leaving Sophie with a carer.

There are various things going on but two main ones. The first is indicated by the title. The Twelfth (i.e. 12 July) is a key day of celebration for the Northern Irish. However the day before is also important and is celebrated by large bonfires. These cause damage and people get hurt so the local authorities have tried to limit them in height to thirty feet. Some time before the key day, fires start breaking out above the thirty feet mark, particularly on public buildings, monuments and the like . Evenyually, someone (in a Guy Fawkes mask) releases a video. It seems to be a man but could be a woman. He calls himself the Fire Starter, plays Prodigy’s Firestarter and says LEAVE OUR CIVIL LIBERTIES ALONE. He encourages others to set fires. They do.

No-one knows who he is and despite the best efforts of the police, he is not caught. Sammy Logan is sure he recognises the man as his son Mark, though, when confronted by his father, Mark denies it. Dr Murray, probably the only person in Belfast to be unaware of what was going on, meets a band of firestarters in the park when he takes Sophie out.

The other key event is, in fact, a series of events. Carson is heading into magic realism territory as we get little snippets about children with strange powers: The Boy with Wheels for Feet and The Boy Who Sees the Future in Every Liquid Surface are two examples. Dr Murray has to examine a girl with a broken wrist and she has wings. Her mother tells him that there are other children with similar peculiarities and they are known as theUnfortunate Children. Murray thinks Sophie may be in this category and signs up to the group’s meetings.

We follow these various strands – our three main characters and their some what messed-up lives, the fire starter(s) and the Unfortunate Children, with, of course, the various strands meshing.

Firstly there is the issue of whether parents can be blamed for having ‘bad’ children and can children be expected to be ‘bad’ if one or both of their parents are? I’ve no scientific proof of it but I’ve seen it over and over again. Good people sometimes raise bad kids. There’s nothing much you can do if you’ve got an evil child on your hands. Not that I’m implying your son is evil.’, says Jonathan Murray, and adds People don’t change, no matter how much you try to influence them. If you’re born evil, you’ll always be like that. Born nice, you’ll basically always be a decent human being, no matter what life throws at you.. Carson thrashes this one out.

The other key theme is the influence of The Troubles. The Americans are still fighting their civil war and the Spanish theirs. The Troubles are not going away any time soon just because they are nominally over. They are going to affect many generations for years to come. In this book Carson shows us that they may have ended some time ago but the scars are still very much there and very much visible.

Carson could have written the standard Troubles book, showing the fighting, the viciousness and how many innocent people were caught up in The Troubles. However, she has taken an interesting new approach, by focussing on the mysterious hidden fire starter and, in particular the Unfortunate Children. How the Unfortunate Children came about and what they mean is never explained but it does not have to be. She is clearly showing that the Troubles have left their scars in different ways and not just the obvious ones and in doing so has given us a most original novel.

Publishing history

First published in 2019 by Doubleday