Thursday, 8 March 2018

Fire on the Mountain - Jean McNeil

At some point whilst reading this book a premonition came to me that at some point in the future, no idea when, a person of some notability, no idea who, will remove a gold card from a gold envelope with a flourish and announce  ‘The award goes to Fire on the Mountain.’ 

For some peculiar reason this is the second consecutive book that I have read where Africa features as the location and almost main character. Another offering from Legend Press’s impressive catalogue, (maybe they should rename themselves Legend Impress), this latest novel from Jean McNeil is magnificent to read.

I don't wish to give too much away. I'm never one to do spoilers and I never really want to offer a synopsis of the work. I prefer to give my overall feelings and impressions and hope that that's enough to lure readers into seeking out the book. This is very beautifully written, graceful and dignified. It's a wonderfully visual book and the descriptions, the sounds, the smells are palpable. It allows the reader to travel vicariously to Africa and feel the very heartbeat of the country, its dangers and its delights. 

The fire of the title is metaphorical because there's just so many allusions, both obvious and oblique, to fire. The whole book is a conflagration of words. But conversely unlike fire it's a slow paced, considered book where you can immerse yourself luxuriously in the language and the action, if action is the right word.

The characters are relatively few but drawn with much depth.  The book is about their relationships with each other. Relationships of immense complexity and written with such compassion and understanding. Pervading the book, too, is a sense of Fate and inevitability. At the beginning of the book the main protagonist, Nick,  seems so emotionally vulnerable yet paradoxically emotionally closed that, as a reader, you fear for him. The story is a wonderful account of how relationships begin and develop, flickering like a flame that can either burn steadily, extinguish or ignite fully. In some ways the characters are hard to engage with until you realise that, like all of us, they are grappling with their own demons. There seems to be a pivotal point in the novel where, as a reader, you realise their own needs become intertwined with the needs of the other characters and you engage more fully with them all but most particularly Pieter, Riaan and Nick.

I think in some ways that this is the kind of book that demands re-reading. It isn’t as simple as one reading not being enough, or that the book is in any way unsatisfying it’s all of those things and more besides. But there’s a sense of discreet subtlety that might not have surfaced first time around. It's a book that stays with you long after you close the cover on the last page.

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