Sunday, January 09, 2011

Not Quite Fired Up Enough?

Neville, Katherine. The Fire. London: HarperCollins, 2008.

The Fire is a book about chess, in which the chess game is transformed--a la Beckett--into a reflection of everyday life. Neville's novel shuffles quickly through time (the first millennium A.D., the 1800s, and modern time) and logic in an effort to make a triple thriller, and the effort nearly pays off.

Where this book really struggles is in its marketing: the cover of my copy quoted the Independent (a British newspaper) review that suggested that this august tome is "Just like the The Da Vinci Code--but much better." The back cover makes a similar comparison. In some ways, such a comparison is well-merited, but it doesn't do Neville's book any favours.

The Fire's tripled timeline, subtle overlaying of the real world with the movements of a chess game, and artful use of historical research to advance the plot all work together neatly, creating a narrative of neatly packaged and well-outlined intrigue, and the book has real literary merit: the writing, for the most part, is clear and well organised. Where The Fire falls behind the oft-compared Da Vinci Code, however, is in simple readability. This book falters under the weight of repeated (and occasionally repetitive) relation of historical facts: we are told about, rather than shown, countless details about the lives of early scientists, ancient mosques, culinary preparations, and the like. Often these extensive details come in dialogues between two characters (or a story told by one character), but the insertion of these dense historical factoids into conversations still slows the pace of the book and makes it more challenging (unless this was the point) for the reader to identify the significant facts from trivial details. Certainly, in terms of research and literary merit, The Fire far surpasses Dan Brown's popular novel, but such an achievement is hardly difficult, considering the faltering timbre and selective research Brown utilised. On the other hand, The Da Vinci Code is in many ways easier to read than Neville's book, for Brown or his editor has carefully sifted through facts and knowledge to relate only the details most necessary to advance the plot. Neville's book of 525 pages (my edition) would be a better novel of 400, perhaps with the extraneous material--which she has obviously researched so carefully--appended to the back as footnotes for the historically inclined. I would very much love to read a later book of hers, and perhaps one that has been more harshly culled with deference to the plot.

In conclusion, The Fire is an excellent and meticulously-researched volume, and I would recommend it, with a few small caveats, to readers who preferred a more dense and mentally stimulating form of fiction.

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