I finished it a couple of days ago but I had to take a pause for breath before I could think about a review. First I had to get used to the idea that there wasn’t any more to listen to. This audiobook is twenty two hours long (more than twice the average for the novels I listen to) and manages to be both intense and unhurried. After days of listening to Kate Mulgrew reading it, it had become part of my life. And now it’s over.
But not forgotten. Joe Hill doesn’t seem to write forgettable books.
“The Fireman” is astonishingly good. The idea is original: a spoor parasite that marks its human host with tattoo-like patterns across their bodies and which, after a while, leads them to combust spontaneously, causing a huge number of deaths, massive property damage and the spreading of the parasite.
Yet this remarkable vehicle to the apocalypse is not the dominant aspect of the book. It is a catalyst for looking more closely at people: how they behave under stress, how they treat those who are weak and pose a threat, what they allow themselves to do when the rule of law falls, what they make themselves do in the name of the greater good, how groups abdicate personal responsibility and how symbols of hope can be co-opted to become mechanisms of repression.
This is not a fun book. Things are bad at the start and they get progressively worse. Joe Hill made me live through that spiral into desperate, undignified, almost intolerable, survival almost one day at a time, through the eyes of Harper Willows, who starts the book as a Mary Poppins obsessed school-nurse who wants nothing more than to bring a spoonful of sugar to unhappy children and ends the book as… well, I guess you’re twenty-two hours away from knowing that.
There are horrible things in this book but what Joe Hill excels at is not the horror itself but the tension and growing sense of foreboding before something happens. I had to MAKE myself listen to the final chapters, not because I didn’t want to read them but because the thought of returning to that extended tension was off-putting.
What makes the book work so well is Joe Hill’s ability to depict the corrupt, the depraved and the deranged so realistically and so subtly: for example, Harper’s husband, Jacob, is a classic narcissist who slowly becomes a homicidal monster. From almost the first thing that Jacob said to Harper, I knew something was off. There were no flashing neon-lights or spooky music, just the small but important warnings in language, attitude and action that showed me a man who was charming but not at all nice.
The nice people in the book are sometimes a little too nice and too lovable but, in the gloom and despair of this book, I found I needed people I could cheer for.
The only thing that occasionally threw me out of the story was the repeated use of a clumsy way of generating foreboding. A number of chapters or scenes and with the equivalent of:
“Harper looked at the bolted doors and asked herself how they could leave through them and survive. In fact those doors would never be opened again”
In a novel which shows such superb control over pace and which creates such high levels of tension, it was as if some child with a neon marker had scribbled sentences into the galleys that unfortunately found their way into the book.
Despite that, this book is an exceptional read and Kate Mulgrew reads it exceptionally well.
Click on the SoundCloud link below if you’d like to hear a sample of “The Fireman”.