Spell­bind­ing and splen­did sto­ry­telling

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - BOOKED OUT - I w star2@ thes­tar. com. my

IMAG­INE, if you will, a world plagued by a virus that ren­ders its vic­tims prone to spon­ta­neous com­bus­tion, trans­form­ing hu­man be­ings into in­cen­di­ary fire hazards.

This is the world that forms the back­drop to Joe Hill’s fourth novel, The Fire­man, which fol­lows from the highly- ac­claimed NOS4A2 ( 2013), Horns ( 2010) and A HeartShaped Box ( 2007).

The story tracks the un­fold­ing chaos from the per­spec­tive of nurse Harper Grayson, who watches as the world is en­snared by Draco in­cen­dia trychophy­ton – known as Dragon­scale – a dis­ease that be­gins as black and gold mark­ings on skin be­fore it even­tu­ally makes the suf­ferer burn. No one is safe. Poor Ge­orge Clooney met his demise dur­ing an at­tempt to save New York City, and even Pres­i­dent Obama fell vic­tim to the flames. As for Keith Richards, no one is sure if he’s still alive ( but it’s a safe bet to as­sume so – Keith Richards could sur­vive a nu­clear win­ter).

Of course, peo­ple are ter­ri­fied of Dragon­scale, which is rather un­for­tu­nate given that it re­acts very badly to neg­a­tive emo­tions such as anger and fear. De­spite her own fear, though, Harper vol­un­teers to do what she can for Dragon­scale suf­fer­ers and is at once recog­nised as a com­pas­sion­ate and sen­si­tive soul – who ha­bit­u­ally takes to singing A Spoon­ful Of Sugar to ease the ten­sion.

One of her first Dragon­scale pa­tients is a mys­te­ri­ous fire­man who car­ries with him a boy who needs an emer­gency ap­pen­dec­tomy. Fol­low­ing a spat be­tween the fire­man and hos­pi­tal staff who in­sist the boy has to wait his turn, Harper steps in to at­tend to him – even though the fire­man car­ry­ing him shows signs of hav­ing Dragon­scale, giv­ing off smoke from his hand.

Harper’s writer hus­band Jakob is a lit­tle less com­pas­sion­ate. A pre­ten­tious fel­low who car­ries the kind of bit­ter re­sent­ment that might come from be­ing re­jected by the Ivy League de­spite know­ing you’re smarter than ev­ery­one else, Jakob rel­ishes every op­por­tu­nity to make Harper feel small and is later en­raged when, after a night of love­mak­ing, he be­comes con­vinced his wife has in­fected him with the dreaded dis­ease.

Our Mary Pop­pins- in­spired hero­ine sub­se­quently finds her­self with child and, through her de­ter­mina- tion to see her baby sur­vive no mat­ter what, dis­cov­ers an in­her­ent strength and re­silience that had pre­vi­ously re­mained dor­mant.

From her now- psy­chotic hus­band, she is res­cued by the fire­man who takes her to a se­cret camp that takes care of Dragon­scale suf­fer­ers. Read­ers might pre­dict a rusha­gainst- time quest to find a cure, or an­tic­i­pate some cruel twist of fate; how­ever, the story set­tles into a thought­ful pace here – though it still of­fers plenty of ex­cit­ing mo­ments.

The camp is a won­der­ful place, where ev­ery­one sings in har­mony – they’ve dis­cov­ered that this some­how trans­forms Dragon­scale into an em­pow­er­ing elixir. Need- less to say, not all is as it seems, although Hill has a de­light­ful tal­ent for avoiding the ob­vi­ous and tak­ing his read­ers down un­ex­pected paths through his won­der­ful sto­ry­telling.

Even the char­ac­ters who find them­selves in supernatural cir­cum­stances are re­fresh­ingly real peo­ple with real flaws and real strug­gles. With his tal­ent for mak­ing Dragon­scale dance to his tune, the fire­man should be some­one akin to the char­ac­ters found in comic book creations like the Jus­tice League or Sui­cide Squad; in truth, he’s a far cry from be­ing a car­i­ca­ture, in­stead, coming across as com­plex and com­pelling.

Hill also has a knack for weav­ing themes into his nar­ra­tive that make for per­ti­nent mus­ings about the times we live in. Is­sues such as im­mi­gra­tion, the per­ils of so­cial media, and the cor­ro­sive na­ture of mass hys­te­ria are all ad­dressed here.

The Fire­man is a fairly hefty tome, coming in at over 750 pages, but the story is so cap­ti­vat­ing in deal­ing with the rich con­tra­dic­tions of the hu­man con­di­tion that you find your­self run­ning out of pages far sooner that you’d like. For an author with just four nov­els un­der his belt, Hill crafts a story with all the tal­ent and imag­i­na­tion of the greats within his genre. His sto­ry­telling is sim­ply spell­bind­ing and splen­did. Novel Games has been held over this month.

Photo: joe­hill­fic­tion. com

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