A review by Nalini Haynes
Harper Grayson works as a school nurse. Someone spontaneously combusts outside her office window. A spore called ‘dragonscale’ is spreading like wildfire. Infected people develop marks on their skin then they smoke — literally — until they burn. When Harper leaves work, the guy is just a greasy smear on the asphalt.
School closes so Harper works in a hospital.
Until the hospital burns down.
Harper is at home with her husband, Jakob, when she sees dragonscale on herself. Jakob reacts, blaming her for contracting the spore and giving it to him. He moves out until he knows if he’s been infected … until he returns, intent on killing her.
People help her evade her husband. Harper joins them at Camp Wyndham, where she becomes part of the community and their only medical personnel.
The world is going to hell in a handbasket and Camp Wyndham is not immune to the madness.
Harper’s favorite character is Mary Poppins and her favorite actor is Julie Andrews, which influences her personality. She’s cool in a crisis although she has a tendency to comply with other people that reaches codependency.
Dragonscale is ‘comforted’ by the release of oxytocin, a naturally occurring ‘social networking’ chemical released in the human body. Conversely, stress causes dragonscale to activate, immolating its host. Hill discusses the implications for dragonscale hosts while referring to historical events involving religious hysteria like the Jonestown deaths and KKK murders.
The Fireman needs trigger warnings. For example, one of the characters, the Marlboro Man, threatens rape and murder; he’s the enemy. A young man in Camp Wyndham was sexually abusive but, when other men talk about him after his death, they express revulsion for him personally and for his actions. Jakob seems nice in the beginning and then — let’s just say that Jakob’s relationship with Harper felt very Jessica Jones even before he informs her that they’ll kill themselves together if they get the virus.
Perpetrators may seem shallow villains but other people start out seeming nice or nice-ish…
I’m sure the Hittites upon whose treaty the Ten Commandments are based in Exodus 19 and 20 thought they were nice and justified in perpetrating genocide when they conquered another ethnic group; their treaty was based on the assumption that the vanquished should be grateful they were allowed to live. In Exodus, the writer uses the analogy of the Hittite treaty to communicate how the Lord your God (in place of the Hittites) expects his followers to be grateful.
Many Nazis sat in (figurative) water like frogs while it heated up around them. And then, to survive, they did terrible things, they obeyed terrible orders.
Humanity hasn’t evolved much in 5000 years.
Joe Hill has an acute understanding of human nature and how to exploit realistic social interactions, realistic human failings, to create a compelling thriller.
The Fireman passes the Bechdel Test: it’s written by a guy but focuses on a woman, Harper, as the central character. Harper’s relationships are many and varied throughout the story. She has numerous conversations with named women without men present where the women discuss things other than men. Hill’s ability to get inside the female persona to write from her perspective is impressive.
One of Harper’s closest friends is Nick, a deaf boy. Nick teaches Harper sign language. Late in the book, she’s communicating via sign; Nick’s part of the conversation is articulate while Harper’s side is more like a drunk Yoda. Exclusion from conversations, being left out, not being told important things — these are some of Nick’s least favorite things, which become part of the story.
There’s another equity issue I want to mention but, if I do, it’s a bit of a spoiler. Suffice to say that I love The Fireman.
This is the most literary and pop culture fanboy book I have ever read. For example, on page 213, Allie offers Harper a mask, explaining that she has a huge girl boner for guys who rob a bank wearing scary clown masks. Harper politely refuses unless Allie has a Mary Poppins mask. Then Allie leads Harper ‘to a stone altar that would’ve been the perfect place to sacrifice Aslan’. All in less than half a page. Joe Hill has a deep knowledge of pop culture and a sincere love that exudes from every page.
Harper’s husband Jakob wrote one hundred pages of a book. His unfinished manuscript is discussed as it lies, like Chekov’s gun, on their study desk. Eventually Harper reads it. Her disgust at Jakob’s revelations and his literary pretensions is profound. Hill’s discussion of writers and male writers in particular is bloody hilarious.
So are Hill’s swears, his insults and the Fireman’s opinion that American swearing is so lackluster.
Many other issues, from philosophy to sociology, are expounded upon but it’s enjoyable and never feels too ‘talkie’.
Literature is mined for material: Graeme Green is indelibly inked to a man’s chest; JK Rowling is virtually canonized; John Wyndham lends his name to the camp while Margaret Atwood lends hers to a yacht. The Fireman may inspire fans to pan for gold amongst Joe Hill’s sources and inspirations.
Hill may have revealed a lot about his taste in music, too.
About 200 pages in, I realised The Fireman is part Jessica Jones, Firestarter, Empty World, Day of the Triffids and part Wicker Man. I love The Fireman so much for its characters, plot, science, sociology and psychology. The Fireman is sensational science fiction that explores human nature with character and heart while compelling sleepless nights until the final page is consumed.
I now officially have a writerly crush on Joe Hill and must read ALL his things.
Hachette sent me the Australian version but their website is down at the moment. Therefore, to give Hachette a nod, I’m using the Booktopia link to reference The Fireman. The US cover is different, more black.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Format: paperback, 768 pages
Publisher: Hachette (Australia) and William Morrow (HarperCollins, US)