“Imagine an object so massive that not even light could escape the pull of its gravity. If light could not escape, nothing could. That was how my father loved me.”
The first thing that hit me as I submerged myself in Marco Rafalà’s novel, a multi-generational novel charting the lives of a Sicilian American family, is how absolutely breathtaking his prose is. The book is filled with beautiful sentiments like the quote above, the kind of language that makes you slow down, reading the words over and over again, tasting them slowly as the image sinks into your mind and stays with you forever.
He is so deliberate with the imagery he uses. In David’s (the young son who’s perspective begins the novel) narrative, we note he has a fondness for the cosmos, and later on we learn that it was a shared interest between him and his mother, who has since passed away.
Rafalà then brings everything together when a girl “pulled at [David], at the raw materials of stars within [him], cooked some billion years ago in a stellar nursery in some distant part of the galaxy.” This is mesmerizing stuff, and immediately the reader knows the girl is special because of how well-layered the imagery is. If that isn’t excellent storytelling I don’t know what is. This fact is made all the more impressive when we realise that this is Rafalà’s debut novel.
The subject matter is also a poignant reminder of the part history plays in all our lives – what do we inherit from our parents? In How Fires End, it is the hate from the past that eventually spills into the present, seeping in to make enemies out of two boys, and shows us the way a fire ends – after a surge of agony and destruction.
Structurally, Rafalà’s novel is ambitious stuff, segmented into a three part narrative that charts each generation’s voice. We start with David in the present, then continue with his father Sal into the same present, before a movement to the past. Rafalà begins his novel with the end, before backing up to show you how the fire came to be, and its impact on David’s life.
It is a bold choice to structure a book like this, because the true meat of the narrative lies in the sections that are not David’s. Rafalà is counting on us to be hooked by the secrets of Sal’s past, and the true events that came to shape the present.
“We were supposed to find comfort in the idea that suffering begot salvation.”
The more I read of How Fires End, the more I got wrapped up in the tragedy of war and the loss that lies in its wake. It is a painful read, because you want things to get better for Sal and his family, but you have been in the present so you know what happens. It is an unchanging course that you cannot affect.
However, there are also the moments in between, the presence of a fierce love between father and son, a space where dandelions could grow without bloody limbs in them, a kiss with a girl “that tasted like candied peaches” – these moments exist for me like gravity, and I hold onto them as I see where the fire ends.
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Marco Rafalà debuts a stunningly poignant book, of secrets and loss, and the binds of the past that shape us and those after us.
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