“IT began with a spark.” Like the Bible, this story begins with a light in the darkness, although, in this case, it is “an electrical break like the first murmur of a weakening heart that would soon unhinge the body, until its conflagration at last consumed the whole building”.
The building in question is a large house, separated into flats inhabited by a landlord and six tenants. As the fire spreads through the house, we encounter each of them in turn: an ordinand driven from his vocation by a series of traumas; a relentlessly rational neurosurgeon; a naturalist who slowly discovers her own nature; a neurotic photographer; a man recollecting an unsettling memory from his boyhood; and a traveller back home, who feels that there is a destination that has eluded him.
Colin Thubron is widely regarded as one of the great travel writers of his generation, and readers of this novel get a taste for his lyrical prose and erudition in descriptions of India, Jerusalem, Mount Athos, and Tanzania. Only the first two of these, however, is visited by the traveller, and it is the would-be priest who spends time among the monks of Mount Athos, and in a refugee camp in East Africa.
Not every tenant gets a chapter of equal length, and Stephen the ordinand gets the longest of the lot — his physical and spiritual journey, from a seminary in Suffolk to Tanzania, and from doubts to disillusionment — amounting almost to a novella in itself. The next chapter, in which the neurosurgeon recalls a patient for whom surgery extinguishes the intense religious visions being triggered by a non-cancerous brain tumour, considers questions of faith from a different angle.
As with the descriptions of the traveller’s experiences, Thubron did the legwork and observed brain surgery as part of his research for the novel. The verisimilitude of the depictions of foreign cities, the natural world, and medical processes contrast with the phantasmagorical elements that slowly and subtly make themselves known.
For instance, the surgeon’s Christian name is carefully obscured, but at one point, from a dialogue with a colleague, we learn that he is called Steven. This link with Stephen the priest is no oversight: three other characters have variations on the same name, including the lepidopterist Stephanie, the only woman in the house (with the exception of the unnamed landlord’s sleeping wife). Three of the tenants have intimidating, rather macho older brothers, who, in effect, share the same name: Richard, Dick, and Ricky. As the chapters go on, the reader becomes conscious of further uncanny coincidences: impossible echoes of a previous character’s experiences; and the recurrence of a particular object (a rotting pear crops up a couple of times.) We start to wonder what connects these characters, and what it might signify.
Each chapter begins in third-person narration before shifting into the first person. Thubron says that the timing of the transition was not planned; but, at a certain point, he would feel close enough to the character that he could assume their voice. The novel starts and ends with the insomniac landlord’s gazing at the stars and looking through old photographs, until he realises — too late — that the house is on fire. In his final moments, scenes from his life rush before him in a confused collage of the images we’ve encountered in the preceding chapters, and we’re left wondering exactly what the link is between the landlord and his tenants.
The author, Colin Thubron, a celebrated travel writer and novelist
Thubron was in his mid-seventies when he wrote Night of Fire, and the themes of the novel — along with its structure: long recollections of events that occurred years earlier — are perhaps characteristic of an author who is closer to the end of his career than to the start. But it is not that Thubron is contemplating retirement: shortly before the pandemic, at the age of 80, he made a trip through Russia and China along the Amur River, and his account of the journey was published last September. He plans to maintain the pattern of the past few decades, in which he has alternated between fiction and non-fiction. When I spoke to him for the podcast that accompanies this article, however, he was still in the early stages of discerning the subject of his next novel.
Attentive readers of his travel books will notice a few autobiographical touches in Night of Fire, such as the description of the schoolboy afraid of the “pale green immensity of the Soviet Union” as it appears on a map: a childhood fear that Thubron mentions in Among the Russians, his magisterial account of travelling into the Soviet Union.
Yet Night of Fire is far from being autofiction: Thubron has never trained for the priesthood, nor performed brain surgery. But then, despite appearances, perhaps neither has Stephen or Steven. . . “So the self is an illusion. The greatest illusion of all,” the neurosurgeon tells his girlfriend, who “gives a blithe laugh” and replies: “Speaking as an illusion, I have my doubts.”
Thubron deftly engages with both sides of this exchange, articulating philosophical and scientific conundrums with searing clarity, while doubts and illusion are explored with prose that sings.
Francis Martin is a news reporter for the Church Times.
Night of Fire by Colin Thubron is published by Vintage at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.09); 978-0-09-953265-1.
Listen to the author Colin Thubron in conversation with Francis Martin in this week’s Church Times podcast. This is a new monthly series produced in association with the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature.
NIGHT OF FIRE — SOME QUESTIONS
- “They are each, in a sense, one another.” Does this description of Hindu gods also describe the principal characters in the novel?
- How many links and resonances can you find between the lives of the tenants?
- When he visits Jerusalem, the traveller finds himself enraged by the falsity of some of the religious sites — “the long-disowned Christian in him rose in revulsion” — and goes hunting for the remnants of roads that Jesus might actually have trodden, touching them “like a believer”. Can you relate to this contradictory mix of piety and doubt?
- Sexual awakening is a common theme, although it takes different forms in each chapter. To what extent is sex a destructive force in the characters’ lives?
- The shift into the first-person voice occurs after just 12 pages in the priest’s chapter, but in the naturalist’s after 44 pages. What might this indicate?
- If you have read Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford, consider the similarities and differences between the two novels: both in terms of their themes, but also the evocations of Genesis 1 at the end of Spufford’s novel and, more ambiguously, at the start of Thubron’s.
- Linda, the photographer’s girlfriend, describes one of the plays she appears in as “an exacting and uneven piece”. Could one justifiably apply this description to Thubron’s novel?
IN OUR next Book Club page on 2 September, we will print extra information about our next book, A Terrible Kindness by Jo Browning Wroe. It is published by Faber & Faber at £14.99 (£13.49); 978-0-571-36829-7.
The fictional story of a newly qualified embalmer William Lavery, who, on hearing the news of the Aberfan disaster in 1966, volunteers to help. The experience alters him profoundly, forcing him to revisit the painful losses in his own life — the death of his father, the disappointment of a lost musical career, and an estranged relationship with his mother. The story charts William’s inner turmoil over the ensuing years: covering his attempts to find redemption by mending fractured relationships, reconnecting with music, and reaching out to others. The story ends with his return to the disaster site 17 years later.
Jo Browning Wroe has an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia, and is Creative Writing Supervisor at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. A Terrible Kindness is her debut novel. The book was inspired by conversations that she had with two embalmers who had volunteered to help at the Aberfan disaster when they were young men in 1966, and from her own childhood experience of growing up at a crematorium in Birmingham where her father was a supervisor.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
October: To Calais, in Ordinary Time by James Meek
November: The Day That Went Missing by Richard Beard