Rachel Beanland wrote Florence Adler Swims Forever, an arresting debut that caught my attention along with that of a great many other readers. Her sophomore novel, The House is on Fire, is a good read, though not as compelling as her first. My thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.
The house in question is a theatre; the setting is Richmond, Virginia. The story is modeled after the massive fire of the Richmond Theater in December, 1811, which at the time was the greatest human calamity to have befallen the U.S. Scores of people were killed, and the disaster created headlines around the country, and even internationally. Beanland tells us in her author’s note that she chose to center the book around four real people that were affected by the fire; some she was able to learn a good deal about, whereas for others, she had to invent almost everything. The characters are Gilbert and Cecily, both of whom were slaves; Sally, a young Caucasian widow; and Jack, a Caucasian stagehand in charge of pyrotechnics during the performances, despite his being just fourteen years old.
Beanland nails the setting like a pro, recreating the technology, character, and landscape of the period, and doing so subtly, without relying on shortcuts or cheesy devices such as popular music and political figures. It’s a good thing, because setting is important to this story.
The characters are not as well developed. The one I feel I know best, by the end of the book, is Cecily, a young slave woman desperate to escape the predatory son of the man that owns her. However, Cecily’s story is the one that Beanland invented. I have mixed feelings about Cecily’s motivation. On the one hand, it’s a well-documented fact that young slave women were raped by masters and other whites as a matter of course, a horrifying fact that must never be forgotten. On the other hand, fear of a sexual predator is an easy device to employ, and I keep thinking about what actor-director Jodie Foster says about its overuse: if you don’t know what motivates a woman, writers and directors everywhere immediately reach for rape. I am thankful that Beanland doesn’t provide any prurient details or graphic descriptions. But apart from love of family and fear of sexual violence, I still know nothing of Cecily at the end of the story.
The other characters are still less defined. Gilbert’s last master permitted him to hire himself out as a blacksmith once his other chores were done, and he has been planning, once he has enough set aside, to purchase freedom for himself and his wife. We also see that he is a hero, helping to pull or catch a great many people that are stuck in the burning building. All of this is demonstrated at the outset, and not much changes for him.
Young Jack is consumed with fear and guilt due to his part in the fire. He had dreamed of becoming an actor, and now that seems unlikely. He wants to tell the truth, but others insist that he not. Again, that’s all known to us from the start, and Jack isn’t much different when it’s over.
Sally is the least defined, to the extent that I keep having to recheck to see who she is.
But then, not every book is character based. This one is more about plot and setting, and those that prefer a story with a lot of activity will likely be pleased.
Beanland is a fine writer, and I do look forward to seeing what she writes next.