A single bottle rocket sends flaming flickers of white light into the air. Soon after, a dotted line of fire travels silently and slowly to a great height, where, with a heart-thumping blast, it explodes into brilliance. Firefly-like bursts fall gracefully to the ground while another stream makes its way north to awe spectators with its beauty. A fireworks display may begin unassumingly, but as it builds momentum toward the grand finale, the oohs and aahs ensue. The Book of Fires, the debut novel by British author Jane Borodale, follows a similar pattern: Expositional descriptions build the framework for a layered narrative that moves toward a striking finish.
Born in the English countryside, Agnes Trussel is a young woman who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant at 17. Fleeing the ignominy of her situation to seek refuge on the unfamiliar streets of mid-18th-century London, she finds an unlikely haven in the home of a widowed pyrotechnist, John Blacklock. Agnes soon falls into an improbable career as his assistant, finding her quick and nimble hands adept to the task of helping Mr. Blacklock with his trade. He, too, is taken with her aptitude for the work, entrusting her with more and more responsibility in the shop. Immersed in the science and production of fireworks, she encourages his quest to discover how to add vibrancy to his colorless pyrotechnics.
All the while, Agnes keeps her growing secret under wraps. Her appetite for learning, coupled with the shame associated with her unwed pregnancy, fuels her crazed search for a solution to her seemingly impossible lot. The hope of a new life begins to illuminate what was once dismal.
The Book of Fires is a quietly beautiful novel. Borodale’s elegant use of language and inventive storytelling captures the tale of a young woman smoldering with desire for a life painted with vivid colors.
Cory Bordonaro is a freelance writer, crafter and barista in Birmingham, Alabama.