By Polly Peters
The nineteen short stories that make up local writer Alix Nathan’s His Last Fire are bright embers that illuminate moments from the last years of 18th Century England.
It’s a slim volume of 151 pages, but the stories are full of dense flavour.
I read it over seven days, transported to a period of history I know little about and revelling in the experience; enjoying picking up stitches from one story in the threads of another.
It’s an intriguing collection of tales. Hilary Mantel has already lauded the book as “the best kind of historical fiction,” where “the past is freshly and energetically reimagined”. Mantel also praises Nathan as “an original, with a virtuoso touch” and it’s a fitting description, for there is indeed something unique about the authorial voice shaping these stories.
Opening the collection, the title story ‘His Last Fire’ is brief and spare with fewer than seven pages. They tell the tale of pyromaniac Jack Cockshutt, still seared by the horror of having seen a woman burned at the stake when he was 10 years old. Picking up a living some 11 years later as an arsonist setting fire to rich dwellings, he poses as rescuer to the unfortunate occupiers, and lives on the grateful recognition of his bravery via small rewards and discreetly filched valuables. Glimpses of his past, and of his imagined future after his last fire, are rendered in prose as vivid and flaring as the flames he ignites.
Spareness and brevity characterise all the stories; there is a poetic quality to some that suggests the author’s paring and chiselling of words and phrases, such as in ‘Flask Between the Lips’. Placed third in the collection, it’s a mere three and a half pages that has the intensity of poetry but expands, foam-like in the imagination, with hints of the many stories alluded to beyond the pages. It is as though a whole novel has been condensed to its essence in one (very) short story.
Other stories such as the paired duo ‘An Experiment: Above’ and ‘An Experiment: Below’, maintain Nathan’s signature concise style while unfolding a narrative of complexity and nuanced character development. These two tell of one central scenario, but from two different perspectives, creating satisfying and extended links for the reader to follow.
There are links between many of the stories: a character picked up again here, an event referred back to there. In fact, re-reading the whole collection is a rewarding experience, not only for picking up further interlinked elements woven through the tales, but also for savouring the construction and detail. ‘Eels’ is a particularly enjoyable re-read.
Some of the stories in ‘His Last Fire’ are vignettes, portraits, glances through windows into past lives and events. Some are snapshots of moments; some are examinations of the consequences of actions or encounters, but all glow vividly. All transport the reader to the late 18th Century through small glimpses that burn with brilliance.
His Last Fire by Alix Nathan. Parthian, £8.99
Available from Bishop’s Castle booksellers Art and Artisan and Yarborough House, and elsewhere.
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