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Riley's Fire

El Paso Times

Fire and Grace

There are no mirrors in the hospital where seven-year-old Riley Martin is recovering from third degree burns on sixty-three percent of his body. The reader, like Riley, is left to imagine the devastation.

In her lovely, quiet and understated first novel, Riley’s Fire (Algonquin Books) Lee Merrill Byrd offers us hints here and there about what Riley might look like in the aftermath of a fire that very nearly killed him. But Riley’s new body—his new identity—is defined not so much by a detailed description of his deformities, but by the absence of the old Riley—the perfect, beautiful boy who was once the center of his parents’ universe, the boy who loved to read and wake up early and serve himself breakfast as his parents slept, the boy who was too big for his age and had his mother’s hair and loved the sound of his father calling him “sweetheart.” All of that gone. In an instant. With the lighting of a match. That beautiful boy Riley will never exist again.

The old Riley and the normal life he led in El Paso with his best friend Greg and his dog, Lady Luck, and the ordinary patterns of waking and living he had with his mother and father things of the past. The fire has robbed Riley not only of his face, his ears, his nose, and his boyhood skin, but it has robbed him—and his parents—of their way of life. Throughout the novel, the sad and devastating knowledge that there is no road that can return them to the way things were pervades every page.

Much of Riley’s Fire dwells on the remembrance of the past. His parents’ voices remind him of who he was, what he was, the things he did and loved. Their voices exist as voices of quiet and desperate resurrection, voices that are determined to talk their son back into the land of the living. “Can you hear me sweetheart? Riley? I was just thinking about the Christmas play. Do you remember when you were in the Christmas play… Try to remember, sweetheart. You were five years old. You were the hit of the Christmas play. Your mother wrote it all down in her diary. You watched her write it down. Remember, Riley?”

If there are no mirrors in the hospital, there are plenty of characters more than willing to take on the role. In addition to his parents, the other residents of Room 213 (where most of the novel takes place) offer their own views and reflections of what the world and Riley look like. There is Carnell Hughes, who is four and who has no mother or father. There is nine-year-old Melvin Pitts who sometimes talks and acts much older and who is as unlikable as his name (he often refers to four-year-old Carnell as a “nigger” and gracelessly begs for Riley to be his best friend). And then there is Parker MacGwyn, a rich and spoiled teenager from Louisiana whose equally spoiled and privileged mother more or less make all the rules.

Then there are the two men, Jackson and Johnson, “the tub men” who take Riley for his daily bath to wash away the old dead skin. The baths are painful, but the men handle their difficult duties with grace and dignity, making jokes and treating the whole ritual as something normal and even giving Riley a new name for God.
These characters, along with other minor characters who appear and disappear throughout the novel, make up Riley’s new “life.” The characters that Byrd so carefully constructs become the mirrors Riley needs in order to come to understand his new self. In addition, these characters become a community of broken humanity that offer the reader a reflection of a world much larger than themselves.

Byrd’s elegant and simple prose evokes more that it describes. There is both an intimacy and a distance in Byrd’s style that keeps the reader close—yet she never says too much. With a few carefully selected words, she suggests complex characters and situations that are very nearly overwhelming—but never overly dramatized.

Near the end of the novel, when Cynthia Riley breaks out into a confused rage at her son, Riley, the moment becomes a perfect articulation not only of frustration, but of love. One senses a mother whose life has gone up in flames. But one also senses a mother who, like her ravaged son, is on the verge of a new life. If this novel is about anything, it is about fire and grace. Fire is an apocalypse that destroys the world. But there is a new world in its aftermath.
- Benjamin Alire Sáenz, El Paso Times, 

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