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Book review: Christy Lefteri’s The Book Of Fire explores trauma and catharsis

The Book Of Fire

By Christy LefteriFiction/Manilla Press/Paperback/331 Pages/$27.37/Amazon SG (amzn.to/47TqMB9)3 stars

The Book Of Fire is a tale about the fading embers of morality and hope in the aftermath of catastrophe.

The story follows an Anglo-Greek family as it contends with the trauma of a forest fire that engulfs its village.

Narrator Irini fruitlessly attempts to draw her husband, Tasso, out of his depression and remain optimistic for the sake of their daughter, Chara.

Property developer Trachonides, whom the villagers nickname Mr Monk because of his reclusiveness, starts the fire out of greed.

He intends to burn 2ha of land to build a boutique hotel, but the fire destroys 121,400ha of forest.

The physical experience of the fire is seared into the psyche of the characters, as they experience feelings and sensations of heat even after the disaster.

When Irini stumbles across Mr Monk, she describes how her “skin burned and I began to sweat as if the fire was around me. Looking at him made it hard to breathe. I was inhaling thick black smoke”.

Whenever Irini meets her friend Mrs Gataki at the Kafeneon, the latter is perpetually fanning herself with a crime thriller, even though “it wasn’t hot”.

Irini’s thoughts are coloured by polysyndeton, a literary device using repeated conjunctions.

She recalls the vitality of the forest, once alive with “the birds and the rabbits and the hares and the hedgehogs and moles and rats”.

Chara’s hands were once “beautiful and plump and soft and squidgy”.

Such sentences evoke a sense of spontaneity, of unextinguished anger at Mr Monk’s actions and a bitter nostalgia for the world stolen from her.

The tragic memory of fire becomes part of the community’s collective memory, as looks passed between Irini and the other villagers are enough to foster trust and camaraderie.

In the Kafeneon, where the survivors gather daily for lunch, Irini says: “I was safe here. Everyone knows.”

To cope with the tragedy, she records her experience from the start of the fire to the present day in a journal she names The Book Of Fire.

In characterising Irini’s loss as a “fairy tale with a happy ending”, London-born author Christy Lefteri argues for the redemptive catharsis that art offers in times of suffering.

Besides writing, other art forms offer solace for Irini. She plays a song her father taught her on the bouzouki, a Greek lute, and characters are returned to the lush, unburnt forest through Tasso and Chara’s paintings.

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The subtext of climate change in the story is especially poignant, given the recent wildfires in Greece.

The author visited the country in August 2021 for research and wrote in an opinion piece in The Guardian newspaper that the experience left a deep impression on her: “I wanted to hear people’s stories, to understand what it meant to be displaced by environmental disaster.”

Lefteri is known for incorporating real-world issues into her books.

Her 2019 novel, The Beekeeper Of Aleppo, explored the refugee crisis that arose as a result of the ongoing Syrian civil war.

In 2020, it won the Aspen Words Literary Prize, which is awarded to a work of fiction that illuminates a vital contemporary issue.

But this new work does not deliver a convincing moral point.

Lefteri suggests that Mr Monk should not bear personal responsibility for starting the fire.

Instead, she condemns the capitalistic system that pushes Mr Monk to start the fire, and places blame on the government and firefighters who were tardy in responding to the fire.

That anyone could have started the fire is no defence. To forgive Mr Monk is to undermine the villagers’ trauma and suggest that feel-good faux-morality trumps justice.

Despite this minor failing, the novel offers a touching depiction of a family moving past trauma together and the power of art.

If you like this, read: The Road by Cormac McCarthy (Penguin Vintage, 2007, $24.79, Amazon, go to amzn.to/3EjBdRi), in which an unnamed father and son travel through a post-apocalyptic landscape, negotiating the fundamentals of human morality and connection in a world where society has collapsed and violence runs amok.

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