How Fires End by Marco Rafalá is a family drama, following the life of Salvatore Vassallo using three different perspectives.
Salvatore was born in Melilli, Italy, where he lived during World War II. Salvatore’s younger brothers were accidentally killed during the war, and their deaths destroy Salvatore’s faith, and bring ruin to his family. With the help of an Italian soldier with fascist ties, Salvatore and his sister, Nella, leave Italy and immigrate to Connecticut. A generation later, Salvatore’s American-born son, David, seeks to discover his overbearing father’s secrets, with devastating consequences.
Since other “books I didn’t pick” were disappointments for me, I was a little wary coming into this one. I also don’t read a lot historical drama fiction. When I started How Fires End, the only other novel I could think to compare it to was Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides. Both tell a multi-generational story of a family of immigrants. The family heads keep secrets from the next generation, which change their children’s lives forever. There’s a historic fiction element to both, but that’s really where the similarities end. In recent memory, the only family dramas I’ve enjoyed and felt invested in were Downton Abbey and The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver. While I am familiar with the family drama/historical fiction genre, it’s not something I seek out frequently.
Why is why I was pretty surprised at how quickly I got sucked into this novel. A big part of that is just for the way that the book is written. The prose is beautiful, even poetic. The first section of the book, “David”, was a prime example of this. Throughout it, the author uses extended metaphors to show the relationship between David and his father.
Imagine an object so massive that not even light could escape the pull of its gravity. If light could not escape, nothing could. That was how my father loved me.
The metaphors in Part 1 are often related to black holes or planetary orbits, which makes sense, because David has a strong interest in astronomy. I really enjoyed them, mainly because I’m a space nerd. If they had been based on some other topic, I could see the constant metaphors getting annoying, but they worked well for me.
David’s section of the book was easily my favorite, but there was one issue I had with it. The novel is told using first-person perspective, so David is our narrator. He’s thirteen years old, but the narration doesn’t have the voice of a young teenager. Of course, thirteen-year-olds can have deep thoughts and come up with clever metaphors about their lives. But this entire section reads like an old man looking back on his life, not as a kid living it.
This is most obvious when it comes to David’s relationship with his only friend, Sam. Vincenzo says that Sam and David are paisanu.
‘They are saying, the saint is one of them, a paisanu. You know what that word means? It’s like the way you and David fought for each other. You understand? It’s the same thing.’
Sam really likes this, and calls David paisanu as an affectionate nickname. For any thirteen-year-old, especially a lonely one like David, that would be a huge deal. Later, Sam excitedly discusses his summer plans for the two of them. He talks about going to the beach, starting a band, and girls.
Sam had unspooled a thread for me to follow–a way out of the labyrinth–and I held onto it even as I knew our Ray Harryhausen days couldn’t last. Nothing did.
This just drives it home for me that David’s narration is not that of a thirteen-year-old. When you’re at that age, you often feel closer to your friends than you do to your family. No thirteen-year-old would refer to his friend as a brother, but also fully believe that their friendship will come to an end.
It’s a bit paradoxical – the prose is one of the book’s greatest strengths, and also one of its weaknesses. What this novel struggled with most was distinguishing the voices of its characters. The second section of the book is narrated by Salvatore, and the final part is told by Vincenzo. Salvatore’s and Vincenzo’s stories focus on the past: their lives in Italy, and early life in America. Though their life stories are different, the prose doesn’t change to match them. There’s no stylistic difference between David’s, Salvatore’s, or Vincenzo’s narration.
Salvatore’s section was probably the hardest for me to get through. Part of it was the aforementioned issue with voice, but it’s also just kind of a bummer. This makes sense when it comes to the three-act structure commonly used in fiction. Salvatore’s section is the second act, which is usually a downer. There were no light-hearted moments or hope spots, and getting through it was a slog for me.
At that point, I’d also become pretty attached to David. I wanted to know more about what happened after his part in the novel was over. There’s a little bit of an epilogue, but I really wanted to see more than what I got.
My one other complaint might be the dearth of female characters. David, Salvatore, and Vincenzo all have romantic interests, though they aren’t all that well fleshed out. Of them, David’s mother, probably has the most characterization, but she died when David was young. She doesn’t appear “on screen” as much as she appears in David’s faint memories of her. Salvatore’s sister, Nella, does play a significant role in the novel, yet she doesn’t appear to have any sort of life of her own outside of Salvatore and David. Of course, the first-person perspective is limited, and can only tell us how the narrators see her.
On one hand, I would have liked to see the women in this book have a stronger presence. However, the novel doesn’t feel incomplete because of that lack. It’s a very masculine novel, a book about fathers and sons. The writing style and excellent prose help hide this absence. I wouldn’t be surprised if other readers didn’t notice it at all.
While How Fires End did have its flaws, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. This is Marco Rafalá’s first novel, and I’d be interested in reading more from him.