The scars – physical and mental – a devastating fire leaves behind

Review: Vivien Horler

The Book of Fire, by Christy Lefteri (Manilla Press)

According to Google, the European summer of 2023 saw hundreds of wildfires in Greece, killing at least 28 people and injuring scores of others.

Bone-dry soils, record high temperatures and intense winds were behind the fires, as were people. A government spokesperson, Pavlos Marinakis, said by August 25 officials had arrested 163 people on fire-related charges, including 118 for negligence and 24 for deliberate arson.

But 2023 was just the latest year of wildfires in Greece. In 2018, on the island of Evia, more than 46 000 hectares were burnt, one of the worst wildfires in the country’s history.

In her author’s note at the end of The Book of Fire, Christy Lefteri writes: “Woods and meadows, pine forests, olive groves, beehives and livestock and houses – all gone. The scenes on TV were apocalyptic. Thousands of people fled their homes.”

She felt compelled to write about it.

And that, together with a 2021 trip to Mati, Greece, also badly damaged by wildfire, was the genesis of The Book of Fire.

It is not a treatise but a very readable novel about a family in a small community near the sea, who are forced to flee their homes and their land because a rapacious property developer sets a fire to clear a plot on which to build a hotel, and ends up destroying lives, properties, livelihoods and vast tracts of forest and countryside.

It is written in two parallel narratives, one about how the family – Irini, her artist husband Tasso, their 10-year-old daughter Chara and the greyhound Rosalie – are coping five months after the fire, and one Chara has written about their immediate experiences during the fire.

On the morning the story begins, five months after the fire, Irini is standing at the window that faces the forest. “All you can see from that window are the endless skeletons of pines, some taller, others merely stumps. Over this fell the ash.”

Outside, under the fig tree, sits Tasso, his hands still heavily bandaged. He is the love of Irini’s life, but she seems to have lost him, his mind scarred by the events of the fire and the fiery loss of his father, a resin tapper.

On this morning Irini takes Rosalie for a walk up the mountain behind their home – well, it’s Tasso’s father’s home, as his survived and theirs didn’t. Rosalie bounds away, off the track, and they come to a partially destroyed chestnut tree.

Under it, sitting very still, is Mr Monk, the property developer. At first Irini wonders at his stillness, then realises he has a rope around his neck, connected to a broken branch above him.

He appears to be unconscious, but when she feels for a pulse she finds he is definitely alive. He opens his eyes. She tells him she will fetch help, but then she looks at him she thinks of her father-in-law, of the firs and the poplars and deer, the weasels, the badgers, the birds and the rabbits, the wildflowers and the forest as it was.

She runs. Back home she thinks about what she has done. And hours later, wondering if Mr Monk had tried to commit suicide or had been lynched, she goes back. He is still there, but now there is no pulse.

By this point in the story we know a lot about how people survived the fire – or did not. How Tasso went off to find his father while Irini and Chara, with Rosalie, headed down to the sea, battling to reach it as so many smart villas had been built along the coastline, cutting off access for the locals.

They climb fences, helping the dog, and eventually reach a low cliff where they jump into the water, the flames flickering behind them. And then they all tread water, for hours, among many others doing the same thing, waiting to be rescued.

The first lines of The Book of Fire are: “This morning I met the man who started the fire. He did something terrible, but then so did I.

“I left him. I left him, and now he may be dead.”

In her author’s note Lefteri describes how she went to Mati a couple of years after its terrible 2018 fire to do  research for this novel, and got to know some of the locals.

“What I was not expecting… was to learn and hear so much about the attribution of blame. I came to understand how desperately people needed to blame a tangible entity – a person, a group of people, the government…

“What I was not expecting, however, was that any mention of the bigger issue, of climate change and global warming, was shut down immediately and completely… It is much easier to put all of the blame in the other.”

This novel, by the celebrated author of The Beekeeper of Aleppo, is often lyrically written, a paean to the lost beauty of the forest, to the love of a family, a community trying to recover.

It is also gripping, especially in the scenes of Irini, Chara and the dog in the water – will they be rescued before they are so exhausted they slip beneath the water – as the old lady with them does? And will Tasso ever come back?

I’ve written this review in the week of the devastating fire above Simon’s Town, an event that has been much on the minds of people living in Cape Town, especially those on the urban edge. We know the horror of fire.

The House of Fire is a great story, but it also packs a sobering message.

  • The House of Fire is one of the books in Exclusive Books’s Christmas Catalogue.




One thought on “The scars – physical and mental – a devastating fire leaves behind

  1. David Bristow

    Friends of mine live(d) in a cottage on a farm near Cape Point Nature Reserve. They sent a pic of pools of honey where their hives once stood. That was the one that knifed me the worst.


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