Book Review: “Fire in the Blood” by Irène Némirovsky

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Apart from the book’s fictional story, the factual one – how the book came to be discovered and published sixty years after it was written – is fascinating. The author, Irène Némirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903 to a wealthy Jewish banking family. She and her family fled to France at the outbreak of the Russian Revolution. In France, she studied at the Sorbonne and wrote over a dozen books. She also contributed numerous articles to French magazines and literary journals. With the imminent German invasion, as a precaution, she with her husband and two small children moved to the little village of Issy-l'Évêque in Burgundy, the setting for this book. This region became part of German-occupied France and in July 1942 she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz. She died there just a month later. Like the acclaimed Suite Française, the manuscript of Fire in the Blood, completed not long before her arrest, was discovered only in recent years and published in French in 2007 as Chaleur du Sang.

The book is set in a very rural area almost in the centre of France around Issy-l'Évêque: the kind of place that could be described as “the middle of nowhere.” It is roughly equidistant from Lyon, to the south and Dijon to the north, but far from the main road that links those two large towns. The backwater setting is central to the book: a place where “the days drag on while the years fly by.” It is narrated by Sylvio an old paysan, who squandered most of his inheritance when he was young.

The author masterfully captures the bleak isolation of the remote rural area and the inward looking nature of the paysans farming the land and running the mills. Their guarded, cagey character is central to the narrative; it permeates the entire story. Everyone have an unspoken past. Some are burdened with shame, others with pent-up secrets, many with inappropriate lusts and most with gnawing regrets.

Though quintessentially French, it could be about rural people almost anywhere, for whom land is everything, almost as important as people, and sometimes more. Toil and suffering infuse the narrative; these paysans acquired whatever wealth they have through generations of sweat and blood. They foster an innate distrust of everyone, strangers and neighbours alike. They wouldn’t hesitate to harbour a criminal who’s one of themselves, rather than involve the authorities, the outsiders.

Illness is rarely mentioned, except when it’s denied. Sylvio describes such a denial when he asks the old farmer Declos if he’s ill. “But he’s a true farmer: Illness is shameful and must be concealed until the last possible moment, until death is seeping from your pores.” So, as Sylvio expects, Daclos declares that he is perfectly fine, merely, tired.

Money is rarely plentiful; land is like blood, and even one’s own life is measured against its likely return on investment. When the doctor tells old Decros that he needs an urgent operation that will be costly, the old man thinks for a long moment and then asks the doctor how long it would add to his life. The doctor says “about 4 or 5 years.” The old man goes silent again, this time for a few minutes, apparently calculating. Finally, he concludes that 4 or 5 years is not a reasonable return on the money, since the likely quality of his life during those rescued years would not be very good. With cold practicality, he decides against the surgery.

Though this may seem like a dark, depressing novel, it is not. On the contrary, the characters display all aspects of human nature; many are likeable and easy to empathize with, especially the narrator, Sylvio. Tantalizingly, the author peels away layer after layer of each character’s nature, slowly revealing that nothing is as it seems; the pious, generous parents conceal a shameful past; the reserved and innocent young woman about to be married may not be as chaste as she and her parents want everyone to believe.

The author’s tremendous talent is evident in every line. In so many paragraphs, as the reader’s mind is just about to formulate thoughts, the author anticipates those thoughts and expresses them so much more succinctly than most of us could hope to do. In the process she reveals things about our feelings that we never realized existed; surely it’s the sign of a great writer to know the reader better that we know ourselves. This exceptional novel leads us through obscure backwoods of human nature and, spellbound, we gladly go wherever this inspired author decides to take us.

The book is available in many online e-book stores and for the Kindle e-reader users in so-called AZW format. According to the article “Popular E-book File Formats”, with its own Digital Rights Management structure, AZW protects the e-book authors and publishers from possible piracy.

Marco Gustafsson is author of articles on ebook readers, e-inc technology and electronic books. Visit Digital Book Readers to find more information and discover new dimension of reading.

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