I first spotted Jane Borodale’s The Book of Fires last year. I was interested, but not quite interested enough to rush out and order a copy. Well, there are a lot of good historical novels out there.
But then something changed. The Book of Fires was one of three books shortlisted for this year’s Orange Award for New Writers. That suggested that it might be something rather special, and so the order went in.
The book duly arrived in the library, and it very nearly went straight back again. Because it is written in the present tense. And in the first person. A bad combination in my eyes. But the narrative voice was engaging and the story looked promising, so on I went.
It is the late 18th century and seventeen year-old Agnes lives with her family in rural Sussex. A picture of rural poverty is efficiently painted, but I really could have lived without so much detail of the slaughter and butchery of the family’s pig, and then a rather odd flashback to a conception scene.
I can happily read about English rural life all day, and this wasn’t badly done but I found myself thinking of those authors who write about it so well, and wondering if I should go and reread Thomas Hardy or Mary Webb instead. In the end though, curiosity about the new, unknown, shortlist-worthy novel won the day.
And yes, I did say conception scene. Agnes is pregnant, unmarried and fearful of the shame that she would bring to her family. She sees a way out when she find an elderly neighbour dead and rather more money than would be expected nearby. Agnes pockets some of the coins and runs away to London.
She is lost and alone in the city, but luck is still with her. She quickly secures a position as an apprentice to a firework-maker, and the story proper begins.
Agnes soon shows herself to be an able apprentice and a relationship begins to grow between her and her employer, Mr Blacklock. A widower. A quiet, clever man.
All the while new and innovative fireworks are being created, secrets are being sought. A major breakthrough may be close.
But Agnes fears the day when her pregnancy is discovered and she will be thrown out onto the street, and worries that her theft of the coins will catch up with her, knowing that the consequence will be transportation at best and death by hanging at worst.
She plots and schemes to secure her future. And others all around her are plotting and scheming too.
It’s a good story, with just enough twists and turns to keep things interesting. And Agnes is an engaging heroine, making it easy to empathise with her concerns, easy to see London through her eyes.
But there are problems.
A lot of them can be attributed to the perspective. The story is told solely from the point of view of a seventeen year-old girl, caught up in her own problems and concerns. It rang true, but that left the other characters undeveloped and the settings and situations underdescribed.
A pity, because with a different perspective – and maybe a different tense – I think this could have been a much stronger book. There was potential in the story and characters, the times and places were well realised, and the story of the creation of fireworks was fascinating, and clearly well researched.
A few other things maybe needed a little more thought. It was hard to believe that Agnes could conceal her pregnancy from so many people for so long, and some of the courses of action she tried to take were so clearly doomed.
I had to suspend disbelief quite a few times, and I rather suspect that this book was written for a younger, less analytical reader.
The ending rounds things off nicely – though maybe a little too neatly.
And what do I think in the end? I think that the Book of Fires has much of interest, but it has flaws as well.
A promising debut, but not an award-worthy one.