house burning as metaphor

I recently read the book An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clarke. I’d seen it heartily recommended on another blog, so I swept my reading pile off my desk and grabbed the novel from the library (having waited my turn after eleven other readers before me finished it).

I had understood it was a mystery, more significantly a mystery without a murder, so I was eager to read it. The novel was a mystery, at least the framework was. Someone is burning down the homes of famous writers in New England, and the protagonist, who had once done the same thing by accident as a youth, is considered the likely culprit. He spends the novel trying to figure out who is burning the houses, all the while trying to escape the clutches of the police and of his past life. And while there is no murder, there are three deaths, one of which falls in the “Hollywood justice” category of too neat wrap up.

But you should not come to this book expecting to read a mystery novel. This story transcends that genre. The mystery is, as I’ve already said, merely the framework for telling a deeper, more personal story. The burning houses are a metaphor for the destruction of family and the cleared ground that allows the building of a new family. And if you read past the grim subject matter, this is also a comic novel. What is most significant about it, though, is something that is rarely spoken of in the mystery genre: narrative voice.

The protagonist is the first-person narrator of the story. He is a bumbling (by his own admission) comic/existentialist hero whose past catches up with him and then carries him (eventually) to a better place. He tells his story in a wry, self-referencing way, and throughout you get the sense that the author has never once lost his point or theme. Like all really good novels, every word is at work in this story. It may be comic, but it is not fluff.

As I said, don’t come to this book for the mystery. You’ll probably figure out whodunnit pretty quickly. And the unfortunate consequence of looking at this as a straight mystery novel is that you may be put off by the strong, unmistakable, and consistent comic voice. (So many commercial mystery novels are either too gritty or too bland in the voice department. Someone needs to blow some fresh air into that genre.) But if you come to this novel interested in exploring the oft-neglected component of narrative voice, you will be rewarded.

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