The Fires, by Alan Cheuse
The Fires, by Alan Cheuse is a collection of two novellas or two short stories, depending on how you define “novella” and “short story.” (I’m counting the entire book as a novella for the Novella Challenge.) In any case, the two stories, “The Fires” and “The Exorcism,” both share themes of death, loss, cremation, fire, Hinduism, healing, memory, and sexual desires.
“The Fires” appears first and is told in third person from a widow’s perspective as she travels to Uzbekistan to cremate her recently deceased husband. The woman, Gina, is about to enter menopause following years of unsuccessfully trying to have another child after their first died. Irony abounds because her menopause no longer matters in the face of her husband’s death.
“The Exorcism,” on the other hand, is told from the first person perspective of a father. After his famous jazz pianist ex-wife dies from a heroine overdose, their daughter sets fire to a piano at her college. The story largely consists of the narrator’s stream-of-consciousness as he drives his daughter home. As he tells his backstory, he is constantly forgiving those around him, while judging himself.
I think the biggest strength of this offering lies in the comparison of the two stories, both with each other and with each reader’s experience. Each of the stories evoke similar themes but in completely different ways. For example, the Hindu religion comes up in “The Fires” as a solution to Gina’s cremation problem in the midst of an Arab prohibition on cremation and in “The Exorcism” through the Hindu scripture, Bhagavad Gita, playing as a book on tape. Through the references are very different, the Hindu allusions represent healing in both stories. Another, obvious example is the fire theme. In “The Fires,” Paul, Gina’s husband is cremated, and Gina has a dream that she is purged through fire. In “The Exorcism,” the narrator’s ex-wife is cremated, the narrator’s daughter sets fire to a piano, and the narrator describes smelling burning wood and flesh during a healing ritual. Again, in both stories, the fire represents healing but in different ways.
As other reviewers have commented, Cheuse definitely gets you into the head of his characters. Both of these stories were compelling and the chatacters interesting. The comparison exercise was engaging and enlightening. I must confess, though, that this short taste of Cheuse left me satisfied but not dying for more. However, though I had a few minor holdups with, say, some of the language in the book, I would recommend this quick read.
Thanks to Lisa at Books on the Brain for sending me this book!
The Fires, by Alan Cheuse [rating:3]