REVIEW by Emma Whitney

NWR Issue 104

His Last Fire

by Alix Nathan

Any work of fiction with an historical bent bearing a positive quote on its front cover from Hilary Mantel, the Grande Dame of the genre herself, is bound to generate excitement. My interest was well and truly piqued, and after delving hungrily into Nathan’s nineteen interlinked short stories, I came away entertained, educated and pondering. All set in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Nathan’s series of vignettes, some previously published works amongst them, require the reader to immerse themselves in the version of history she portrays, and are all the better for this. The interwoven tales of a motley cast of enigmatic, difficult and troubled characters demand an intellectual engagement, but reward with subtlety and surprise in equal measure. His Last Fire is exactly the sort of short story collection that leaves you eager for more, ready to read and re-read all over again.

From free indirect discourse to wonderful imagery, Nathan lends her stories and creations a refreshing immediacy all too often lacking in historical works. A boy is not simply small, but a ‘shrimp of a lad’; a cadaver’s hands are not hard or lifeless, but ‘like nets drying’; light shines ‘pond-green’ through trees. In this melting pot of eras, the modern is successfully teased from the ancient, and the spectre of the French Revolution looms ever-present in the background of each tale. As you progress through the chapters you feel sure that Nathan has researched and created enough for a novel; indeed, each story is so well crafted, it is hard not to believe that the characters don’t exist beyond their six or seven pages.

It is challenging to pick a favourite amongst Nathan’s almost-score; I was as engrossed by both ‘Shell: The Pedlar’s Tale’ and ‘Shell: The Sailor’s Tale’, as I was revolted by ‘An Experiment: Above’ and ‘An Experiment: Below’. I was most moved, however, by another closely connected pair of stories, ‘Forgiven’ and ‘Shriven’, two weird, slightly unsavoury twin tales imbued with an underlying gentleness. So often in literature, you come across characters who act in ways which seem unconscionable; it is extremely pleasant, therefore, to see true humans with feelings and doubts. The use of flashback should be commended in ‘Forgiven’ in particular, as Nathan accurately portrays the way memory and the present overlap. From a troubled arsonist to a singing whore, from a mad aristocrat to a radicalised engraver, the populous of post-Enlightenment England is offered respect, and a rarely heard voice.

Peppered with influences and allusions from Chaucer to Milton, Nathan must be applauded on such a confident, learned and engaging debut collection. His Last Fire is intelligent and impressive, and asks its readers to work with it, to step into its ready crafted world of politics and authentic dialect; of fifers, Foxites and radicals. Themes of rebellion, whether against one’s government, circumstances, or oneself, permeate the collection, as does the sense that you’re quietly missing something, the one key thread that ties each story completely together. Such a search is often fruitless, however, in fiction as in life. It is best to read Nathan’s brilliant showcase of some of England’s most exciting, tumultuous and important years with a keen eye and an even keener brain, to marvel and muse at its cast of vivid, engaging characters, and to nestle in its stories for their own sake. Any reader who does so will not be disappointed.

Emma Whitney received her MA in Creative Writing from Swansea University, in between her BA in English from Staffs and her MA in Medieval Archaeology from York. She currently works, writes and resides in Staffordshire @emmalucywhitney

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