February 2010

Riley Johnson


The Book of Fires by Jane Borodale

There are three types of historical fiction. The first type has us as readers concerned with the time period in which it's set -- the foreignness of the past is as alluring as it is menacing. This is why people read, say, a novelist like Bernard Cornwell. Type two has its characters concerned with our setting -- this kind of fiction you might call "relevant" or something like that. (Witness the fictions of Matthew Pearl and a dozen other gifted but second-tier historical writers, or, to a lesser extent, Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon.) The Book of Fires, Jane Borodale's debut novel, belongs to a third class of historical fiction, in which the characters concern themselves with their own place and time, its daily reality, its pressing concerns, its nitty-gritty. The best period novels are of this type: take for example Anthony Burgess's A Dead Man in Deptford or Charles Palliser's The Quincunx or nearly anything by Umberto Eco.

All of which is to say that The Book of Fires belongs in illustrious company.

Agnes Trussel, the novel's spunky, desperate, pyromaniac protagonist, is an impressively realized character, so full of life that we can't help but identify with her humanity. She is perhaps the most convincingly rendered country-to-city transplant I've encountered recently: frightened, awestruck, employing pastoral similes to make sense of the alien metropolis. It would be easy to co-opt Agnes as a sort of proto-feminist -- spoiler alert! -- success story. But she is more than that, and less. She is a girl forced to choose the least of many, many evils, who fails, who triumphs, and who ultimately wins us over.

The plot picks up in earnest when Agnes -- a pregnant rape victim -- swipes a cache of gold coins from her dead neighbor and heads for the city, where she almost immediately becomes apprenticed to a mysterious pyrotechnician, one Mr. Blacklock. (Digression: Borodale is too gifted a writer to pander to the kinds of people who watch and enjoy The Tudors and/or read Austen and Dickens for all the wrong reasons. That said, the names of the characters -- Mrs. Blight, Cornelius Soul, Lettice Talbot -- seem to have been custom-designed for just that demographic. Maybe this is authenticity; I don't know. But it's easy to imagine a situation in which some wan female character might swoon, "Oh, Mr. Blacklock!" and collapse into a lacy pile of petticoats. How very silly that would be.) Anyway, once Agnes reaches London, the drama, driven largely by her increasingly evident pregnancy and bolstered with subplots involving ill-advised romance, counterfeiting, prostitution (seemingly inevitable in novels set in London Town), and fireworks, begins to mount with dizzying speed. So impossible is Agnes's situation that the reader is left a little disappointed when the tiredly optimistic denouement rolls around. 

No matter; the delights of this novel lie mainly outside its plotline. You might come for the costume and the scandal, but you'll stay for Borodale's superbly detailed descriptions of eighteenth-century London's filth and glory, rendered in her gorgeous, winningly earnest prose. On her website, Borodale explains: "It was really important to get the details right." In that respect she has succeeded admirably, down to the minutiae of Georgian chemistry. (Even the novel's jokes belong to the eighteenth century, which is endearing if kind of unfunny.) But the beauty of the writing is never buried beneath tedious fact. The present-tense narratorial voice is not quite authentic, but I wouldn't call it anachronistic, either. It's more a fascinating hybrid of centuries-old diction and contemporary syntax, as though Agnes's thoughts were transcribed directly and then found, updated, and word-processed by some Blackberry-era poet. It all makes for a strikingly unique descriptive style.

In fact, Borodale, whose background is in sculpture, seems unable to restrain the rapturous visual beauty of her language: a rape scene is portrayed as prettily as a fireworks display. Her characters sometimes speak like they're delivering soliloquies, and she occasionally reaches too far for an original turn of phrase. "My arm aches," claims Agnes, "like a heavy load from my shoulder" -- which, if you really stop to unpack it, doesn't make a whole lot of sense. (Aches like a load? Aches from my shoulder? A load from my shoulder?)

But these slips are infrequent. For the most part the prose is enchanting, the characters vivid, the set-pieces overwhelmingly lifelike. If Borodale succumbs once in a while to the temptations of the genre -- Agnes too often "senses" a pair of eyes on her back, or some such thing -- she has earned our forgiveness. Not quite history-mystery, not quite melodrama, The Book of Fires is essentially a work of entertainment, but one crafted with real heart and artistry.

The Book of Fires by Jane Borodale
Pamela Dorman Books
ISBN: 0670021067
368 Pages