Spellbinding and splendid storytelling
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