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A smouldering fictional firecracker

Justine Carbery says Jan Carson's novel, which is set in east Belfast, is a terrific read

Author Jan Carson
Author Jan Carson

Northern Ireland has come under the spotlight recently in contemporary Irish fiction, but The Fire Starters, by Ballymena-born Jan Carson, is the first novel I have read with Protestant east Belfast as its backdrop.

This stunning book was nothing like I expected, veering from gritty realism, through magic realism, to an insightful exploration of parental relationships.

What a treat when a book so imaginative, original and sharply written comes your way.

The novel criss-crosses between the lives of socially awkward Jonathan, who is bringing up his daughter alone, and Sammy Agnew, who used to be a loyalist hardman, recently relocated to a more affluent suburb, and is trying to put his violent past behind him.

Interlaced between these realistic narratives come irresistible fantastical vignettes about children with extraordinary superpowers.

There's the Boy with Wheels for Feet, the Boy who could See the Future in every Liquid Surface, the Girl who Turns into a Boat.

These 'Unfortunates' provide some solace to the two fathers struggling to understand their children.

And all the while Belfast burns.

Not because of the usual 80ft bonfires of the Twelfth but because a young man, The Fire Starter, posts a video on YouTube, inciting the youth to acts of arson, as a form of civil disobedience.

Sammy Agnew fears that it is his cold-hearted teenage son Mark behind the raging fires and feels powerless in the face of the ensuing chaos.

Sammy has tried to move beyond his paramilitary background; the beatings, bombings and racketeering.

At one time he delighted in dragging Catholics out of their cars to see if they could sing the Sash, followed by a ritual burning of cars. He loved the thrill and power of it.

But now he wonders if "the same dark thing" is in Mark, "his own hot anger… like ice inside him, waiting to melt and once liquid, boil".

Looking at his troubled son with a mixture of terror and love drives him to distraction.

He is cracking under the pressure and visits his GP, Dr Jonathan Murray, looking for help.

Jonathan, a different social class to Sammy, was raised by indifferent parents who emigrated to New Zealand when he was only 16, leaving him behind, a solitary friendless boy.

He becomes a doctor and once, when on call, is seduced by a Siren, who leaves him after giving birth to their daughter, Sophie.

He loves his beautiful newborn but also fears the destruction she could inflict on anyone hearing her potentially manipulative voice.

So he contemplates trying to enforce a world of silence.

But Sophie has opened him up to the world, forcing him to interact with others, and he is no longer sure if he can carry out his plan.

Both men struggle with fatherhood and then connect during that burning hot Belfast summer, where tensions are high and fire threatens to engulf them all. The writing and the imaginative reach of this unusual novel is superb.

A real cracker.

The Fire Starters by Jan Carson, Doubleday, £14.99

Victorian thriller with a timely warning

Jess Kidd's supernatural novel is a covert morality tale tackling climate change and exploitation, writes Joanne Hayden

There's a lovely bendiness to the world of Jess Kidd's third novel - a Victorian mystery with a cast that includes a seven-foot tall housemaid, a kidnapped child who can cause people to drown on land and a heart-sick ghost whose arms are galleries of moving tattoos.

Set mainly in 1860s London, Things in Jars tracks private investigator Bridie Devine in her quest to find Christabel - part little girl, part sea-creature.

Held captive by a trigger-happy con-woman, Christabel has been abducted from an aristocrat claiming to be her father and is now coveted by even shadier individuals.

Helped in the search by her giant housemaid, Cora, and a dead boxer - both fiercely loyal to her - Bridie follows her instincts, seeking out those with a taste for medical curiosities, dressing as a man in order to attend a public operation, and visiting a circus master obsessed with Henry VIII. Interspersed with her investigation are flashbacks to her own childhood, when, already an orphan, she was sold to a doctor with a terrifyingly malevolent son.

As in her previous two novels - Himself and The Hoarder - in Things in Jars, Kidd (above) embraces magic realism but pays careful attention to geography and sense details so that the supernatural is balanced with the everyday.

Born in London to Irish parents, she uses her native city as more than a backdrop here, diving into her chosen era, capturing the noises and smells.

"Just beyond you'll detect the unwashed crotch of the overworked prostitute... Above all, you may notice the rich and sickening chorus of s***".

Like Sarah Waters, Kidd knows how to write Victorian society so that it's current and alive. However her fictional landscape is entirely her own, drawing on the Gothic and the picaresque, on myth and fairy tales, on steampunk and screwball comedy. It's rare enough to read a book where there's such a palpable sense of the writer having a great time.

For the most part, Kidd manages the various strands of her plot with verve, her roving point of view moving between goodies, baddies and animals while never losing sight of Bridie.

Her characters are plentiful, colourful and distinct; her prose has a gleeful, lyrical energy; her dialogue is fresh and funny and does several things at once. "Tramping all over, spending shoe leather," Cora says to Bridie disapprovingly.

In the hands of a lesser writer, Cora might have been a grotesque. Instead she is vivid and memorable, rough and smooth - "a reticent warrior, not looking for battle but resigned to it" - and her relationship with Bridie is an unsentimental portrait of strong female friendship.

Kidd does not back away from the sinister and the violent. Himself opened with the horrific killing of a young mother and Things in Jars is full of vulnerable children and potential assailants waiting in the wings.

There are murders and rapes on these pages, and the threat of vivisection and other kinds of brutality hangs over Christabel, but Kidd is sure-footed as she moves between darkness and light.

There's a lot of obvious social commentary going on: about poverty, class discrimination, sexism and the exclusion of women from medicine and other professions.

And central to the narrative is a more contemporary issue. As the captive Christabel starts to cut her adult teeth, the tributaries of London "swell and course". Pigeons, wrens and robins disappear until only water birds remain. "Outside every tenement the water butts resonate, in every puddle and pond, bucket and trough there is a quickening."

In one sense, the story is a covert morality tale. While Christabel is more than a straightforward metaphor for climate change, by depicting Victorian London in the grip of an ecological crisis, Kidd is making a point both about the girl's power and the fallout from her exploitation.

Until the last few chapters - when the present and past collide - Things in Jars moves along at a lively pace.

It loses its way slightly towards the end when too much happens in a rush.

Nevertheless, it's disappointing when it does end. Kidd has created such a strange world navigated by a bold woman.

Like the novel, Bridie is whip-smart and streetwise, funny and serious at once; she absolutely deserves a sequel.

Things in Jars, Jess Kidd, Canongate, £14.99

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