Whilst reading Sophie Jai’s Wild Fires, I kept thinking of the line by Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ The unhappiness that pervades the pages of this book is centred round the loss of the narrator’s cousin Chevy whose funeral forms one of the central aspects of the plot.
Cassandra, through whose narrative viewpoint we are introduced to the rest of the Rampersad family, journeys back to her family home in Toronto. Here she is confronted by her mother, sisters, and aunties all unwilling to talk about Chevy’s death, all holding back words and stories, frozen by grief. The narrative moves between the families early life in Trinidad where Cassandra was born and Toronto Canada where her father moved the young family on the belief that it would be more advantageous. However, the house on Fleet Street holds many ghosts and secrets. Her female relatives lock themselves in their bedrooms for most of the day, alone with their sorrow and communication between them is fraught and tinged with difficulty.
In an attempt to understand those around her she tries to piece together the stories of what had led up to this point. Grappling with this she realises that ‘so much of our past had already been erased- whole people of lived lives, gone-must we do it to ourselves too?’ The idea of so many things in the past being irretrievable, was a poignant one as well as the idea of how we construct our own subjective versions of the past. It was in this sense that book engaged with bigger issues of memory and how we can create histories that may be more palatable, ‘we would not leave the sequestration of our rooms where we talked to ourselves, looked at old pictures, misremembered memories, imagined them, even, and extracted from them what we needed to make the days more bearable.’
I found Cassandra’s quest to untangle the past compelling and the writer engaged with the different types of grief held by each of the characters in both a moving and empathetic way. Cassandra is not only faced with the complexities of an older generation and how they handle death and grief but also having to come to terms with her own guilt of deciding to leave her family home and set up a new life for herself in London.
As the novel weaves its way over the days and months after the funeral, metaphorical wild fires continue to burn. Conflict arises at different points and there were moments in the text that felt that these characters were on a precipice, a point of no return. Their individual relationships with the past, our need to connect with and make sense of it is a universal idea. There was also the acknowledgement that somethings are lost to time and irretrievable but also ultimately unknowable. Cassandra at one point remarks, ‘I thought about how the greatest mysteries of our lives are our mothers’ and this felt so true. Time changes everything, both place and self and so the past does become a foreign country. However, this is not to say it is a worthless endeavour. Even though the process itself can bring about trauma and pain it can also bring hope.
Thank you to Harper Collins for my ARC.