Detail is at the heart of Jane Borodale’s The Book of Fires, and it’s that detail that creates a world so full that it’s easy to imagine.
It’s 1752, and young Agnes Trussel leaves her home in rural Sussex to head to London. She’s pregnant, after being raped, and has stolen a bunch of gold coins from a dead neighbour to help her escape.
On arriving in London, she finds work as an assistant to the surly John Blacklock, maker of fireworks. As Agnes learns more about fire and alchemy, she also finds herself rapidly approaching the moment she will be discovered as an unwed mother.
Borodale’s novel features a heroine who is instantly likeable – she’s practical, honest, innocent, and you root for her every step of the way. Although she is in an awful situation not of her own making, Agnes still manages to find joy in her work, and her curiosity about both the science of fireworks and John Blacklock was a curiosity I mirrored.
The book is told in first person, so John Blacklock remains a mystery to the very last. I like that we only ever see him from Agnes’s point of view – it helped me to feel some of what Agnes was feeling. Agnes proves to be a good judge of character throughout the novel, apart from in one instance, but I’ll leave you to discover that one instance yourself.
The novel opens with Agnes and her family preparing to slaughter a pig, as they do every year, and the metaphor of the pig – trapped and doomed – is one that runs throughout the book. Also running through the book is the spectre of hangings, common in London at the time. They add a sense of foreboding throughout.
The detail was what struck me most about Borodale’s novel – you could almost smell, hear and see everything she talked about, from the Sussex countryside to John Blacklock’s workshop to the streets of London.
I found myself utterly caught up in The Book of Fires, and so impressed with both the plot and pacing, and with Borodale’s writing, which is exquisite. I’m utterly unsurprised that it was shortlisted for the Orange Award for New Writers when it came out.
The Book of Fires is a book in which many of the key events happen outside of the reader’s (and Agnes’s view), but you never feel like you miss a moment, and the surprises are well worth it. For fans of historical fiction, this is sure to be a hit, and for fans of well-crafted, well-written work, this is a must read.
How I got this book: Bought