The Story and the Storyteller of Fire in the Blood

Fire in the Blood cover  I’m still regretting that University Book Store didn’t have a book club meeting in November. Attendance had been low. I lost faith for the first time in five years, and cancelled. Our book that month was Irene Nemirovsky’s Fire in the Blood, and it’s the perfect kind of short, complex, multi-layered book to provide a compelling evening of conversation for a reading group. What a lost opportunity!

This little mini-masterpiece, coming out in paperback in July, would be cause for rejoicing even if Suite Francaise had never been found. Far from being one of those second-rate “lost” manuscripts exploited after an author’s death, Fire in the Blood is a lean, mean little wonder, a treasure just recently pieced together, possibly the last manuscript Nevirovsky was working on in 1942 when she was arrested, imprisoned, and killed at Auschwitz.

Suite Francaise, with its historical setting and grand wartime scope, is Nemirovsky in a Tolstoy-like mood. Not Fire in the Blood. This short novel doesn’t have a hint of wartime horrors. It’s her timeless Chekhov piece, a tight little drama of country landowners and unfaithful wives in which some humdinger surprises go off like blazing pistols in the second half.

The most fascinating and tricky thing about the novel is the narrator. Old Sylvestre, nicknamed Silvio, impoverished uncle, down-on-his-luck failure in life, has decided to lay bare his soul and the souls of quite a few members of the wealthy farming community of a little village in Burgundy. He’s particularly interested in three fascinating women: his lovely, happily-married cousin Helene, her daughter Colette who is about to be married, and Brigitte Declos, a young woman married to a wealthy old skinflint.

The novel begins with Colette introducing her fiancé to her family, announcing that she hopes for a marriage as stable and enduring as her parents’. Well, Silvio knows differently and bares it all in this swift little whiplash of a literary experience, as two beautiful young women with “fire in the blood” reach out for the man they love, unleashing the secrets and lies of everyone around them.

This particular reader gasped at the abrupt audacity of the last sentence. With a new understanding of the plot in retrospect, I went right back to the beginning of this cunning little puzzle of deceptions to read it again. Every word counts, every sentence is immaculate, every twist of the storyline is a delightful pleasure, in this wise, ironic look at passionate love and the collateral damage of “fire in the blood.”

Of course, it all depends on whether you believe the cunning old liar who’s telling the story. Is old Silvio accurately reporting the truth at last, or is this his male ego distorting what happened and rationalizing away the unpleasant parts? It’s an ideal vehicle for using first person in a reading group, because every reader’s opinion will differ – which makes it perfect for a great discussion.

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

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