Set in the rural French town in Burgundy that would also form the backdrop to the bestselling Suite Française, Fire in the Blood is the story of Silvio, his cousin’s wife Hélène, her second husband Françoise, and of the truths, deaths, marriages, children, houses and mills that bind them with love and hatred, deception and betrayal.
This novel is an absolute rural treat from one of my favourite 20th century authors, tragically lost to us at Auschwitz. The story is a wonderful showing of her talent for unflinchingly portraying the passions and flaws of her characters. Her brutally honest observances of the human nature (in all of her books) make for some wonderfully memorable protagonists, and although this book was unfinished at the time of her death, it still retains its power to captivate the reader.
The story opens with an intimate family setting, a real country way of life, very family orientated and in this instance in touch with nature, its beauty and the integral part it plays in their community. The opening’s vibrant scene setting is both rich in detail and in building characterisation and is a great foundation for the forthcoming drama. None of which I will comment on as at 152 pages, I run the risk of spoiling too much of the plot.
The layering of intricacies in this small close-knit town and the beautifully drawn characters is slowly teased out over the course of the story, allowing us to change allegiance to people as we understand them in greater depth. It’s a claustrophobic, rule laden arena, made all the more obvious by Silvio, who has travelled the globe, lived a varied life, and cares little for the social nuances he has returned to.
In nature, there is a moment of perfection when every hope is realised, when the luscious fruits finally fall, a crowning moment towards the end of summer. But it quickly passes and the autumn rains begin. It’s the same for people.
Fire in the Blood is a meditation on time passed and its inexorable passing, comforting in a nature defined cyclical way which is contrasted by the frenetic movements of us mortals trying to leave a mark before they resign themselves to the forced slowing down and realisation of the time that got away and the smallness of it all. The author’s eye for the human condition, both the good and bad is razor-sharp; the life choices made, local jealousies, and the relationship with strangers – both inside and outside the neighbourhood – are all perfectly balanced.
This was the first Némirovksy book I read and having tackled most of the translated works since – all except two – this one, although unfinished, points to something more ambitious than previous novels. The quiet history which is deeply buried, tantalising with so many unanswered questions really puts this above her earlier (and also very good) body of work. It’s a universal and delicate portrayal of life and – after rereading – for me really does cement the author’s place in the pantheon of literary greats. Whether the finished work would have tied these threads up is a moot point because what we have is a fine piece of literature. Suite Française is one of the two remaining books that I need to read and is finally on the pile. As this is her agreed upon masterpiece, I am already excited to finally sink my teeth into it, after years of putting it off for fear of having no more new Nemirovsky to read.