The Fire Starters by Jan Carson

Having recently read another novel without realising it was of the gothic genre, I think I’ve gone and done it again, this time, a contemporary Belfast gothic novel, because right from the first chapter, there is the overwhelming sense of something sinister going to happen, and it’s not the series of summer fires that are plaguing the city though they are equally troubling. I discovered having finished the book that Jan Carson is also a fan of absurdist fiction. Another clue.

Contemporary Irish Fiction Empathy EU Prize for LiteratureIn that first chapter we meet a father, Jonathan, who has a strange perception of his baby daughter, who he is caring for alone. He desperately wants to care for her, but he feels that part of his role in doing that is to remove the aspect of her that she has inherited from her mother, who he believes is a siren.

His own childhood was one of being provided for, but unloved, his parents (who never wanted children or grandchildren) abandoning him at the age of 16 to a boarding school, leaving the country. He becomes a Doctor, and of no surprise, lacks any form of empathy.

We meet Sammy, also a father, an ex loyalist paramilitary, who is becoming increasingly anxious, having reason to suspect that his son Mark, who lives in their attic and rarely comes out, may be involved in sinister activities, fearing he has inherited his own thirst for violence, a tendency he had no control over in youth and even today, has to quell the feeling inside.

I found the depictions of both these men terrifying, both are planning some kind of intervention and up until the last pages, we can’t quite believe that they may follow through, and they too wrestle with their instinct and question, whether they ought to proceed.

Then there is the background of a hot summer and the approach of the Orange parades of the Eleventh Night on every 12th of July, an Ulster Protestant tradition where large, towering bonfires are lit, accompanied by street parties and loyalist marching bands.

The bonfires are lit to celebrate (1688) the victory of Protestant King William (Billy) of Orange over Catholic king James II at the Battle of the Boyne (1690), which began the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. – Wikipedia

When the rain finally arrives, people begin to smile, there are fewer angry people on the streets, they no longer have the numbers for a decent riot, the air of festivity is extinguished. Protesting soon makes way for the football season.

This is how it has been in Belfast every summer since the Agreement. The same hot anger rises at the end of June and and goes stamping up and down the little streets. Stamping and shouting and raising Cain all the way through July until, by August’s end, the energy’s gone right out of it.

My Truth is Not Your Truth

And the various versions and perceptions of truth and history that exist, depending on who is doing the telling, where they live, what day it is, demonstrated in this opening chapter This is Belfast.

This is Belfast. This is not Belfast.
Better to avoid calling anything a spade in this city. Better to avoid names and places, dates and second names. In this city names are like points on a map or words worked in ink. They are trying too hard to pass for truth. In this city truth is a circle from one side and a square from the other. It is possible to go blind staring at the shape of it. Even now, sixteen years after the Troubles, it is much safer to stand back and say with conviction, ‘It all looks the same to me.’

And following this are two paragraphs, one that begins with ‘The Troubles are over now’ and the other begins with ‘The Troubles have only just begun.’

Deidre Sullivan Tangleweed and Brine Jan Carson The Fire Starters

Sirens from Deidre Sullivan’s Tangleweed and Brine

Jonathan (Dr Murray) is obsessed with silencing his daughter, and even employs a deaf nanny to look after her. She is a loving, nurturing soul, providing one of the few notes of relief in an otherwise tense narrative, as these men ponder their responsibility as fathers and fear of what their children may become.

There is a third brief narrative, an omniscient voice that shares the story of a few of the Unfortunate Children of Belfast, children of parents who belong to a support group, that Jonathan attends once, they are children born with deformities and powers and it is here, that I realise there is an element of magic realism in this tale, that perhaps his perception of his daughter as a siren isn’t an aspect of his own mental health problem.

The novel is a blend of politically charged social and magic realism, though it feels realistic in its reading; dealing with the trauma of legacy’s, a parent’s legacy to a child and the community’s complicated legacy of the political troubles of Northern Ireland. It is set in East Belfast, where the author lives and from listening to the interview, I learn that she is an accomplished eavesdropper, that many of the words in these pages have been inspired by overheard conversations.

On Developing Empathy for Those Living Segregated Lives

Interested to understand the motivation behind the novel, I listened to an excellent interview with Nicky Bull in which she shares something of her role as a community arts facilitator and the role this can play in healing rifts, bringing people together, using the creative process to help develop empathy, she talks about the ability of storytelling to help develop this.

The community arts sector in Northern Ireland has played a huge role in the peace and reconciliation process. Primarily it brings people from both communities together into a shared space but I also think it has also taught people soft skills that have been missing from Northern Irish culture.

It’s very, very hard for people here to practice empathy because quite often we grow up segregated, so how are you supposed to understand what life is like if you don’t have any friends who aren’t from the same background as you, the skill system is still largely segregated,and government housing and things.

So these conversations around learning how to empathise, which I think the creative act, particularly writing fiction, you’re putting yourself in the shoes of another character, even when you read, it’s an act of empathy, those skills can be taught and then transferred into the social realms that we’re working in Northern Ireland at the moment, that people can imagine a life that isn’t theirs, it’s much more difficult to hate and to segregate when you have the ability to empathise with other people.

It’s an incredible and deeply disturbing novel, yet despite the discomfort I learned a lot from reading it and especially from taking the opportunity to listen to the author speak, that helped me understand the motivation behind it and that incredible candour around the very real problem of how the creation of segregated community’s causes a lack empathy and how the creative arts can help provide a practical humanist solution.

It’s Saint Patrick’s Day and #ReadingIrelandMonth21, have you read a good Irish book this month?

19 thoughts on “The Fire Starters by Jan Carson

  1. Well, I’ve just finished Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. Definitely not a feel-good read, but a sensitively drawn portrait of a deeply unhappy, flawed character. I think it’s more my cup of tea than gothic tales!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. When I heard Carson talk at the (online) 2020 Melbourne Writers Festival, she said she likes fantastic elements being used to show how absurd reality can be, and she doesn’t want people to ‘like’ her work, she wants then to wake up and pay attention to what’s in it.
    I don’t think she talked about empathy, which just shows you how different interviewers winkle out different aspects of a novel, depending on what questions they ask.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That “waking up and paying attention” is certainly what it does, but I definitely required the context and further understanding that comes from listening to a writer talk about their work, and since winning the EU Prize Jan Carson has become involved with, part of a conversation/debate with a network of authors from post-conflict countries, which creates a kind of intersection between writing and working with a community on practical solutions for reconciliation.

      The terror evoked by the so-called upstanding citizen of the Doctor, who was well-functioning on the surface, was so palpable, and the way he was so convinced of the necessity of his intention, “his truth” was such a strong metaphor.
      There’s such beauty in the surrounds, yet so much healing required. The presence and danger of segregated communities is near invisible to the uninitiated, to the outsider.


      • I think one of the benefits of blogging that we sometimes underestimate, is that this kind of context can be shared more widely than just to the people attending the author talk. It means we can access years of reading experience amongst ourselves:)

        Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Claire 🌺
      I finished reading Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of the Stars, it was of interest to me, my grandmother gave birth to my mother in 1919 Boston in the through of the Spanish flue which her husband, my grandfather had cought.
      I love most of Emma Donoghue’s writings.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I appreciate stories in which the characters are wrestling with whether or not to proceed with some sort of action; it makes for a natural and believable tension. Happy belated St. Patrick’s Day. I don’t think I have anything Irish in my stacks just now, but I did watch a film with Colm Toibin speaking of his admiration of Alistair MacLeod’s stories recently!


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  6. I recall hearing one of Carson’s short stories on the radio last year. It must have been shortlisted for the BBC national Short Story Aaward at the time, as they always cover it in detail on Radio 4. Anyway, it prompted me to make a mental note of the author vas someone to check out. The story seemed somewhat different in style to this novel – more ‘realist’ and humorous, IIRC. There’s a link here if you’re interested.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That might have been her Postcard series, she has two books of postcard stories and another book if short stories coming out this year which will be serialised on BBC Radio. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work, I listened to her read a few of the postcard stories and they were great, kind of like prose poetry.


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