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Night of Fire

Colin Thubron (Chatto & Win­dus, £16.99)

This is the story of six tenants and a land­lord who live in an apart­ment block on the south coast of Eng­land and who all die when it’s dev­as­tated by a fire. On the face of it, it would seem a sim­i­lar for­mula to Thorn­ton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which traces the story of a ran­dom group of peo­ple who die when the bridge col­lapses. in fact, it’s a very dif­fer­ent sort of novel.

Colin Thubron retells strik­ing in­ci­dents and episodes in the lives of his pro­tag­o­nists. There’s a psy­cho­log­i­cal el­e­ment in their sto­ries and an un­canny res­o­nance be­tween some of them. Of­ten the pro­tag­o­nists—a dis­parate bunch, in­clud­ing a priest, a neu­ro­sur­geon, a pho­tog­ra­pher and a school­boy—are not sure whether they re­mem­ber events them­selves or merely re­call ear­lier memories of those events.

What brings the char­ac­ters so strongly to life is the in­ten­sity and ac­cu­racy with which the au­thor de­scribes their pro­fes­sional and pri­vate pur­suits. Just as in his cel­e­brated travel books, he takes im­mense trou­ble to learn the back­ground of the peo­ple he en­coun­ters, so in this book, he has mas­tered the com­plex­i­ties of his char­ac­ters’ lives and en­vi­ron­ments.

Some­times, he draws on his own trav­els to lend cred­i­bil­ity to the scenes he de­scribes. Of a monk on Mount Athos, he says: ‘his face was nested so deeply in beard that only a pair of soft hazel eyes shone through, and seemed to con­tra­dict the boom­ing majesty of his voice.’ he also de­ploys his great gift as a trav­eller for lis­ten­ing to what other peo­ple are say­ing to him, glean­ing their im­pres­sions rather than im­pos­ing his own.

The re­sult is a book that is dif­fi­cult to sum­marise or clas­sify. it’s not a novel with a sin­gle theme, it’s not a the­o­log­i­cal dis­course or a series of travel vi­gnettes. The only way to un­ravel it is to read it and this will be re­ward­ing both in­tel­lec­tu­ally and emo­tion­ally. Mr Thubron is a com­mu­ni­ca­tor who has some­thing to say to ev­ery­one. John Ure

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