Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 21, 2020

The Fire Starters (2019), by Jan Carson

Winner of an EU Prize for Literature Jan Carson’s The Fire Starters is a blend of social realism and the fantastic which reveals the ongoing trauma that haunts Belfast despite the Good Friday Agreement set in place two decades ago in 1998.

At the 2020 (digital) Melbourne Writers Festival, Jan Carson was paired with Tasmanian author Robbie Arnott whose new novel The Rain Heron (n my TBR) also uses magic realism in a setting grounded in everyday reality. To quote from my report about what Carson said in this session:

The Fire Starters explores the history of sectarianism in Northern Ireland in a novel where the ghosts of the past inhabit the present during the Marching Season in Belfast.  These echoes of the past can be seen in real life: Carson said that whenever you see a limping man of a certain age in Belfast,  it’s because he was knee-capped during the Troubles.  The book  traces a father’s dismay when he learns that his son is involved in the violence that often accompanies the bonfires set by the competing sides.  Realism blends with the fantastic with rebellious young people setting mega fires that spark a conflagration.

Chair Angela Meyer asked: Can aspects of reality be better addressed by using the fantastic?  Carson said that the Northern Ireland tradition is realism, whereas in the republic, this is not so.  Citing writers like Salman Rushdie, Carson likes fantastic elements being used to show how absurd reality can be.  She says she doesn’t want people to ‘like’ her work, she wants then to wake up and pay attention to what’s in it.

Which is certainly the effect the book had on me.  I hadn’t thought much about the ongoing effects of the violence in Belfast.  From this distance and having no skin in the game, I thought the Troubles were all over and a good thing too.  Carson tackles this attitude in Chapter 1 ‘This is Belfast’, leading me to categorise this novel within ‘War, Armed Conflict and its Aftermath’ because though the conflict in Northern Ireland has long been characterised as ‘The Troubles‘, that innocuous-sounding name is a euphemism for a civil war of extraordinary brutality.

The Troubles is too less a word for all of this. It is a word for minor inconveniences, such as overdrawn bank accounts, slow punctures, a woman’s time of the month.  It is not a violent word, something as blunt and brutal as ‘apartheid’.  Instead, we have a word like ‘scissors’ which can only be said in the plural.  the Troubles is/was one monster thing.  The Troubles is/are many individual evils caught up together.  (Other similar words include ‘trousers’ and ‘pliers’.) The Troubles is always written with a capital T as if it were an event, as the Battle of Hastings is an event with a fixed beginning and end, a point on the calendar year.  History will no doubt prove it is actually a verb; an action that can be done to people over and over again, like stealing. (p.8)

It had not occurred to me that there remains in Belfast an undercurrent of fear that a small spark could start it all up again, nor that young people coming to maturity in a ‘post-Troubles world’ might not realise that reigniting rebellion might soon get out of control.

However the aspect of the book that haunts me still is the way Carson has explored parenting.  Two fathers symbolising all the parents bringing up children during the Troubles, struggle with their demons: Dr Jonathan Murray plans to harm the child he loves in order to protect others from her, while Sammy Agnew with a long-ago violent history of his own, has spawned a violent psychopath who threatens the safety of the entire city.

Years ago, one of my friends had a son who was a drug addict.  He stole from her and from other people and eventually came to the attention of the police.  When he jumped bail and took refuge at her place, she had to confront this same dilemma.  Should she call the police while he slept on her sofa?  What was in his best interests as well as her own and that of the community?  It was a nightmare scenario that no parent would ever want to face.  Carson shows the anguish of these parents seeking to protect the community from peril, and I thought of the parents of radicalised Muslims who face this dilemma too.  Murray’s story shows the fear of potential harm, while Agnew’s tragedy is already real.

The characterisation of these two fathers is brilliant.  Jonathan Murray’s story is told in first person, illuminating his own unloved life.

I don’t have a middle name.  This was my parents’ doing.  They had not planned on children.  If pressed, they might have expressed a preference for dogs or garden ornaments over miniature versions of themselves.  I was, and continue to be, an ‘accident’, though in truth I believe this word is an inaccurate term for the act of planting a child seed in your wife’s belly.  Accidents are occurrences without intent, such as broken crockery or crashed cars.  Often alcohol is involved. Yet, ‘accident’ is how my conception has always been referred to in the Murray household.  ‘Disappointing ending’ may be a better description, or ‘unfortunate repercussion,’ for I’ve been told the act itself was carefully planned and even featured candles. (p. 26)

These parents emigrate while Jonathan is still at school.  His infant daughter Sophie is the only good thing ever to happen to him.

Agnew’s anguish is told in third person omniscient:

Mark is different.  Mark has the ability to hurt people without actually touching them.  It is the distance that thrills him, that makes him feel like God.  This, Sammy knows, is a kind of greatness.  He is sometimes jealous of his son who, even at eight, is quicker than his father and mother combined.  This, Sammy knows, is the worst kind of power: fists can be held down or even severed, but a mind like Mark’s is impossible to contain.  He is afraid of his son.  There is no softness in him, not even with his mother.  (p.76)

But as you can see from these excerpts, Carson’s style has a wry humour, wickedly deceptive as it leads the reader towards a harrowing finale.  Interspersed through the alternating narratives of Sammy and Jonathan are curious vignettes about ‘Unfortunate Children’ — children who are born with special gifts such as having wings, but whose gifts are not always benign.  At first these vignettes don’t make sense, but it all comes together in the end, showing us that a naïve attitude to ‘difference’ can be risky because ‘difference’ can be life-enhancing or dangerous.  Parenting sometimes involves heart-breaking honesty and the courage to make very difficult decisions indeed.

Highly recommended.

Author: Jan Carson
Title: The Fire Starters
Publisher: Black Swan Ireland, Transworld, Penguin Random House UK, 2019
ISBN: 9781784163846, pbk., 291 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Readings


  1. So glad you enjoyed this, I think it’s wonderful and Jan is a star.


    • Definitely on my radar from now on:)


  2. So interesting, Lisa. I guess because conflict in Ireland doesn’t make it onto the news channels, those of us who don’t live there think the problem has gone away. Which it obviously hasn’t…. :(


  3. The origins of The Troubles run so far back in the history of the country it’s unlikely they will ever be completely eradicated. The fear is, as you say, that they are just dormant, waiting for a spark to bring them back once more.

    This sounds like a tremendous book – my only hesitation is your mention of fantastic elements. I’m not a great fan of these – are they are minor element?


    • It’s difficult to answer this without spoilers, but let’s say this. I don’t like magic realism much either. But I really liked this book…
      I read it with my heart in my mouth and I’d recommend reading the last 50 pages in the daytime because it will keep you awake.


  4. Now I want to know what your friend did…


    • Her partner made the decision for her and rang the police. Their relationship didn’t survive that. It was not his decision to make, though it was kindly meant.


      • Terrible situation all round Lisa.


  5. And just like that, another book is added to my list… Thanks, Lisa. And I’d also like to know what your friend did. Such a difficult situation.


    • LOL I’m just about to do it again, I hope. Beachmasters is Astley’s most under-rated novel, I think, and it deserves much better:)


  6. I have put this on my list because it sounds like such a “me” book. I’m not sure how I missed it. I even follow Jan on Twitter but I think I had mistaken her for a book publicist 🤪 I remember seeing a segment on Channel 4 News in London about the generation that was growing up post-Good Friday agreement and how many of them could not fathom what their parents had gone through, nor could they understand the religious divide. But when they interviewed the parents it was all very much focused on how fragile they thought the peace was. I am actually reading a book set during The Troubles at the moment: a coming-of-age story called The Good Son by Paul McVeigh which I am much enjoying.


    • Is that the journo Paul McVeigh who used to report on the Middle East?


      • No, I don’t think so. Think he’s a playwright & creative writing tutor as well as a novelist.


    • Hi ! do you think it’s possible to find that Channel 4 segment anywhere on the internet? I would be really interested in watching it.


  7. Really looking forward to reading this one!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I found it slightly terrifying right from that first chapter, knowing the father’s intentions and wondering if there was any way of stopping him. And Sammy’s inherent taste for violence, that seething rage just beneath the surface. I know it was about the dilemma of a father’s responsibility, but talk about extreme examples of fathers.

    I thought it interesting that many of her observations came from overheard conversations and find her community arts work fascinating, where they attempt to teach empathy, something that many brought up in segregated communities do not possess. Fascinating. Dark.


    • Yes, the sense of tension about to erupt into something much worse is very strong.
      You can understand why, whatever their politics, so many migrated to get away from it.


  9. […] So, we’ll say that the book is good and I’m not the right reader for it. For an interesting and positive review, check out Lisa’s post. […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: