The Fires by Alan Cheuse of NPR Radio fame is an intense reading experience comprised of two novellas in which people set fire to something precious. The stories have elements in common- love and memories, misery and grief, loss and transformation- but the characters are very different.
In the first story, The Fires, Gina Morgan travels to Uzbekistan, where her husband Paul has perished in a car accident on a business trip after falling asleep at the wheel. Procedures for cremation, her husband’s wish, are elaborate and difficult in the Soviet Union, but she is determined and enlists the help of the American embassy. She is able to make it happen only through a Hindu ceremony, a surreal experience in which she, the grieving widow, is the one to light the funeral pyre, and lights up her skirt in the process. Later she marvels at her feelings of freedom.
In the second story, The Exorcism, Tom Swanson travels to an exclusive New England college to pick up his daughter Ceely after she has been expelled from school for setting fire to a piano. Ceely’s mother, a famous American jazz pianist, has recently died of a drug overdose, and her daughter is filled with anger, rage, grief. You could feel both the daughter and the father struggling to be understood. In this story there were long sentences that became almost stream of consciousness and dreamlike. For instance, in part of the story, Tom is driving Ceely home from college. While she sleeps he is thinking of all the things he’d like to tell her. Here he thinks back on why he and Ceely’s mother separated when their daughter was 3:
“Sure, she’d be home every day she was playing in town, but she was sleeping a lot of the time we were awake, so even when she was with us she was apart, so we didn’t so much as actually separate as kind of erode, like a beach washed away after one heavy tide after another.”
There were comic moments here, too. The father is constantly forgiving others in an effort to cleanse his soul. He forgives his father, his wife, his ex wife, his daughter, the dean at his daughter’s school; for various things, like being jealous, or being angry, or for just being human. He even forgives the couple in the hotel room next to his for their wild sexcapades that kept him awake half the night, but the next day he calls their room repeatedly in retaliation. So I guess he forgave but could not forget!
These stories are extremely well crafted and excellently told. I would love to hear them in Cheuse’s smooth radio voice. They are compelling, tragic, yet funny at times. I enjoyed the symbolism of fire and words like sacrifice, destruction, purification kept coming to mind while I was reading.
Published by the Santa Fe Writer’s Project, I received The Fires from the Literary Ventures Fund. For a chance to win my copy, leave a comment here by June 6th.
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