“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.
Sunday, August 25, 2013
Review: HOME FIRES by Elizabeth Day
When Elsa and her mother return home, Elsa is sent to her father’s study to ask if he would like some tea. From his violent reaction to her, we quickly understand that Elsa’s father is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Day then introduces a contemporary character, Caroline, who appears to be suffering from depression and taking large quantities of anti-depressants to cope with a tragedy. Her thinking is fuzzy, unclear. Despite the best efforts of her husband, Andrew, Caroline lacks the will or inclination to get out of bed.
Caroline drifts off into memory, and we are told about the first time – some thirty years previously – Andrew brought Caroline home to meet his parents. Caroline, who was neglected as a child growing up in a working-class household, feels intimidated by Andrew’s comfortably middle-class home, and particularly his mother, Elsa. The competition between the two women for Andrew’s affections – and later Caroline’s son Max – will define the relationship between the women for the rest of their lives.
Elsa, who we now meet as a widowed and senile old woman, is unable to remember the most basic of details, such as her son Andrew’s name. Curiously, the memories of her childhood grow stronger: thus we discover the physical abuse Elsa suffered at her father’s hands after he returned, a damaged man, from the war. We discover that Elsa’s father wasn’t simply suffering from shell-shock, or a variation of PTSD. He had been invalided out of the war as a coward, and declared unfit to serve; in his shame, he takes his frustrations out on the young Elsa, in the process marking her – and shaping her relationship to men and power – for the rest of her life.
Meanwhile, we also discover the root of Caroline’s depression, and her dependence on anti-depressants: her only son, Max has been killed in South Sudan after stepping on an IED while on manoeuvres.
Thus the story becomes the interlinked tale of two women who have been brutalised by war. Their immediate connection is Andrew, Caroline’s husband and Elsa’s son; but their experiences of an increasing inability to cope with reality – Caroline wilfully taking anti-depressants in order to fend it off; Elsa suffering memory loss as a result of age and senility – also offers a common bond, especially when the helpless Elsa comes to live with Caroline and Andrew, and Caroline is roused from her catatonic state to help with Elsa.
At this point we might expect the story to become one of a burden shared by Elsa and Caroline, as they help one another to deal with their pain. It’s to Elizabeth Day’s credit, however, that she turns her back on the easy and conventional narrative option to explore the unsettlingly realistic consequences of war and violence on the women who, as is claimed in the song to which the novel’s title alludes, keep the home fires burning.
Indeed, Day makes a point of choosing the tough option at every turn, with the result that the novel becomes a powerful and at times heartbreaking account of Caroline and Elsa’s inability to deal with their respective crises. The prose is crisp and forthright, particularly when Day is describing the variations on violence that crop up throughout, although she has a piercing eye for a telling phrase or a poetic flourish – Caroline’s depression, for example, is “the encroaching shadow, the slow puddle that spreads across her consciousness like spilt ink.”
HOME FIRES is a powerful and haunting tale, a thought-provoking testimony to the fortitude of those women and children who must somehow learn to cope as best they can with the devastating repercussions of war. – Declan Burke
This review was first published in the Irish Examiner.