REVIEW: BURNED BY PERSEPHONE NICHOLAS

BURNED

Author: Persephone Nicholas
Random House (eBook price varies)
Review: Monique Mulligan 

Burned, Persephone NicholasThis month I’m taking part in a blog tour for ­Burned by Persephone Nicholas via Random House. Burned is the winner of the 2013 National Seniors Literary Prize and is described as a ‘haunting story of loss, love and renewal’ by its publisher, which is pretty apt. It’s not a long book – I read it in a matter of hours – and it’s more of a slow burn than a blazing read. It’s the kind of book that takes a while to get going, like kindling that is slow to take hold, and then all of a sudden, the urge to keep reading takes hold and doesn’t let go until the story is burned out. The event that sparks that flame is so shocking that readers will cringe in horror and will continue reading in hope that justice is meted out.

Four lives are connected by a tragic event that takes place in England. Malcolm Martin is a homeless man who has never recovered from the loss of his son 20 years earlier. He becomes a target of a pointless attack that stuns the community. Noah Daniels, a young boy reeling from the loss of his father, witnesses the attack and, in the absence of others, becomes a suspect, to the distress of his mother. Now, more than ever, Kate is questioning her decision to relocate from Sydney to England. It seems only to have brought more pain – a marriage breakdown, her ex-husband dying, and now this. Meanwhile, one of Noah’s classmates, Matthew, suspects that his older brother, Tom, has a dangerous obsession with fire. Will he speak up or will he protect his brother? And how will Noah react with all this going on?

Are we becoming immune to violence these days? As our minds become saturated with images and information, are we becoming desensitized? These are some of the questions being asked by Nicholas through the eyes of her characters as they struggle to accept events and their impacts. The insight into Tom’s mind is particularly chilling; a troubled young man who burns himself to feel pain. He’s not a character that most readers can, or want to, identify with and yet, another question must be asked: How did he get to be like this? Is his behaviour born or made? Was it branded on him through life’s experiences or was this hot coal of anger within him from birth? Burned explores the choices people make in life, whether in adversity or not, and how reactions to life events are different for every person. Some react and fan the flames; others focus on trying to put the flames out. Just as the choices are different, so too are the life lessons.

Burned is one of those books that will appeal to some readers more than others. It takes a while to become familiar with the characters and their back stories and some readers may find it confusing, especially since the story jumps around in time and place a fair bit. However, once you become used to the different voices, and you form a mental time frame, the story burns brightly with a warmth that softens the chill of the violence within. Some readers may be put off by the first chapter, with its nod to sci-fi and a man soaring into space – I was. I persevered though, and with the benefit of hindsight, that introduction makes sense. Think about a phoenix rising from the ashes. If sci-fi is not your thing (it’s not mine), don’t worry. This is not a futuristic story – it’s very much a comment on modern-day life.

I liked the use of contrasting locations (Sydney beaches and the UK) to set the mood. I also liked the fire/burning metaphors throughout the book. English Lit students would have a field day with them! Life can burn you out or burn you up (or both) … the flames of love can burn fast and hot or slow and warm … recovering from grief or loss can take years to burn down … suspicions are like smoke that linger long after the flames have died down … fire can be destructive but it also allows renewal and regeneration. I could go on, but I will spare you.

Burned is not a light, happy, escapist read, but it’s a thoughtful read that I enjoyed mostly for its beautifully considered writing. Available from good bookstores and Random House Australia. This copy was courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley.

Bookish treat: Anyone else feel like toasted marshmallows. I like them almost black with a molten heart. However, I like my toast very light … go figure!