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