Night of Fire by Colin Thubron

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A word that came to mind as I finished this book is kaleidoscope. I'm hoping that thinking and writing about the book will take me to an explanation for that word rising to the surface.

At the outset we learn that six tenants and the landlord who live in a formerly grand old house turned into apartments perish one night when it goes up in flames. What the author tells about the lives or one period of the lives of each of the tenants is captured in the single word title for each chapter: Priest, Neurosurgeon, Naturalist, Photographer, Schoolboy, Traveller, and Landlord. 

The focus on the part of the lives of each person is told in great and interesting detail, wonderful stories on their own. In the story of the naturalist, the only woman of the group, we learn about butterflies. The priest recalls the story of his trip to Mount Athos with others in his seminary, both about their dramatic interactions and the beauty of that part of Greece. In the chapter on the neurosurgeon the author recounts stories of surgeries that, in saving the life of the patient, could eliminate their memories, bringing the question of identity into focus.

But it's what they each have in common you begin to notice: They share the name Stephen (or Steven or Stephanie), the traveller had brain surgery and worries about memories he may have lost, butterflies enter the picture often, two had brothers named Richard (or Dick). But most notably, in each case the death of the mother of the person is important.  The schoolboy's mother hadn't died, but he told his school mates that both his parents were dead; they were in Cyprus and never visited the school. The importance of the mother's death or absence is a notable part of their identities.

The various aspects of their lives are like the chips inside a kaleidoscope; as you turn the tube, the mirrors bring the chips into an endless variety of patterns. Perhaps our identities, those patterns, are only reflections of bits, rather than the "reality" we see. Well, maybe, but aside from that, the tales are engaging and the writing enthralling. This passage about butterflies is indicative:

The swarming that Stephanie had witnessed was common a century ago, she read, when the Victorian skies would be darkened by unpredictable migrations. Multitudes of invading whites might cover the night-time trees like snowflakes, before taking off at dawn, eclipsing the sun. Clouded Yellows crossed the unsown fields in a golden mist, and Great Southern Whites still flowed along the coasts of Florida in aerial rivers flirty-five feet wide.

Most of the storytelling is third person, but the subject breaks into first person for a portion of the time, thus claiming their own identity shortly before succumbing to the fire.

Colin Thubron, Night of Fire, Harper, 2017, 384 pages (I read the kindle version). Available at the public library and from Amazon. Surprising that there are no holds at the public library for this new book that was reviewed favorably by The Washington Post and the UVa library does not have it.

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