Many novels have attempted to tackle the Troubles and their legacy, but rarely have they approached the subject with the boldness and flair of Jan Carson. Juxtaposing two narratives, that of a reformed terrorist, Sammy Agnew, and a young doctor, Jonathan Murray, Carson offers a powerful treatise, shot through with flashes of magical realism, of the way man hands on misery to man. Although set 16 years after the ceasefire, it is not too difficult to imagine a world in which “fire, rage and chaos” throng the streets once more and Carson’s chilling tale uses its heightened situations and language to fine effect.
This inventive novel is about, among many other things, the burden of parenthood. Sammy and Jonathan’s narratives are intercut with tales of mythical children – a girl with wings, a boy with wheels for feet – whose fraught parents meet in monthly support groups. Anna Burns’s Booker-winning Milkman depicted factions of the nationalist movement during the Troubles as an oppressive and dangerous regime imposing the opposite of liberty. Jan Carson depicts factions of the post-ceasefire loyalist community as similarly wedded to violence... The novel is inventive if disjointed: the magic realism of the Siren plotline might have come from a different book... The Fire Starters succeeds in dramatising the simmering volatility of a region that, with the looming post-Brexit threat of a hard border, could explode again. But volatility, Carson illustrates, can go either way. The needle can equally and unexpectedly swoop towards love.
Three intertwining narratives cohere easily, with the backdrop of a city in flames... Other passages on the political and social backdrop written in a third-person omniscient voice sometimes threaten to take us out of the story... These minor issues aside, Carson has written a thoroughly captivating and well-paced novel that should hopefully earn her the international recognition she deserves. A writer with a pleasingly distinctive style, she is also an intelligent and courageous commentator.