book review: The Fire Starters by Jan Carson



Doubleday, April 2019 (UK)


For whatever reason I never tire of reading about the Troubles, but The Fire Starters is not your average ‘Troubles book.’ Set in modern-day East Belfast, Jan Carson imagines a series of fires that break out throughout the city, initiated by an enigmatic figure referred to as the Fire Starter, who revels in the blood lust that his havoc causes. Amidst this violence we have two fathers, Sammy Agnew, an old man and former paramilitary, and Jonathan Murray, a socially awkward new father, both of whom fear their own children, as Sammy begins to suspect that his son is the cause of the Tall Fires, and Jonathan begins to suspect that his newborn daughter is a Siren.

This is a singular, inventive, tragic, and wildly funny book about the legacy of violence and the lasting scars it leaves on a community. The novel’s central conceit is reminiscent of Milkman, and of other quintessential Northern Irish lit – that terror begins at home, that trust cannot automatically be extended to one’s own family – but Jan Carson’s interpretation of this theme is far more abstract than any I’ve seen before.

I’ll be honest, I’m so relieved that I didn’t know there was going to be a magical realism element to this book before picking it up, because as I’m sure you all know by now, magical realism almost never works for me – but fortunately, Carson shows us how it’s done. This book quite literally mythologizes the Troubles as the threat of Sophie the maybe-Siren looms large over Jonathan, but her narrative role is more ambiguous; is Jonathan merely appropriating the grandiosity of the cultural narrative he was raised into, or is Sophie actually a danger to society? As Jonathan fears for the future, Sammy reminisces on the past and the violent role he played in the conflict in the 1970s; he fears that he can never wash his hands clean, and that his actions have irrevocably damaged his son.

As I’m sure you can tell, I loved this. Jan Carson’s writing is sharp and funny and piercing; the fusion of perspectives works magnificently; the examination of Belfast’s history of violence and the ever-present threat of its resurgence is timely and unapologetic. And this is, frankly, one of the most original things I’ve read in a very long time.

You can pick up a copy of The Fire Starters here on Book Depository.

34 thoughts on “book review: The Fire Starters by Jan Carson

  1. ah always love a 5 star review from you, it makes me want to read the book immediately. i will say, i have no experience reading books about the Troubles, but you loving them definitely made me so intrigued to start. Definitely adding this one to the TBR. Lovely review as always!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds like such a quintessential you book! I am glad it delivered. Your five star reviews always tempt me, even if I am unsure wether a book would work for me. (do you think it would work for me?)

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was SUCH a me book, even with the magical realism! I actually do think it would work for you. I’m a little hesitant about the protagonists because they’re both men and they’re both awful and not in a fun way (though it is a really funny way in one case, I think). But the unique narrative structure and fusion of different perspectives is SO you.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ohhhhh you said the magic phrase! (unique narrative structure is m catnip) I have added it to my Goodreads. Also, it’s eligible for next year’s Women’s Prize and I do want to try and read more of the eligible books this time around. Mybe then I will actually manage to finish the longlist in a reasonable amount of time.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m glad you found your first five star fiction book of the year! Do you think it’ll land on your favorite books of the year list?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh wow I missed this comment the other day BUT I think it will!! So far I’ve only got like… four books that I think have a very solid spot on that list guaranteed (Say Nothing, Maus, Tell Them of Battles, this one).

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I know I will never convince you in one comment how wonderful magical realism can be, so I’m going to bring what it’s like for parents to be afraid of their own children. I’m so tempted to read A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold. She’s the mother of one of the shooters at Columbine. My fear is that it will all be apologetic, a way to tamp down fears that she was a horrible parent who abused her son and made him a monster. My hope is that she is honest about what happened with her family and how parents can’t control all the outcomes, even when it comes to their children.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Magical realism isn’t a dealbreaker for me – nothing is really a dealbreaker for me, I read very widely – and I’m happy to be proved wrong with books like this, but it is never my favorite genre and I am disappointed by it more often than not.

      I’ve heard of that book, I’d be very curious to hear your thoughts on it. I’m sure it’ll be a harrowing read but hopefully an honest one, as you say.


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