When Ella, the 22-year-old narrator of René Steinke's impressive debut novel, sets fire to a dress she has balled up and thrown in the bathtub, she watches the flames devour the garment, wondering, "What was fire, anyway? What was it made of?" Her answer is wrenching: "Grief, I thought. Grief."
Poor Ella suffers her share of grief. Her torso severely scarred by a neighbor's leaf fire that she fell into as a young child, Ella has also endured the death of her father, and now, at the start of the novel, the death of her grandfather, who has killed himself by drinking arsenic though Ella's grandmother, the sad, vain Marietta, and her weak mother, Catherine, refuse to talk about his death. Setting fires has long been Ella's preferred method of releasing her pain, an escape from the emotional internment of her tight-lipped family. She's also driven to bed random men, many of them guests at the hotel where she works in her small, polite Indiana town. With these travelers, she can momentarily lose and find her marred body. Both these compulsions, along with her drinking and insomnia, intensify with the new layer of family silence that follows her grandfather's unexplained suicide.
Ella's addiction to the power of fire is vividly rendered. "I would tell myself 'no more' and quit for six months, but there was something inside me that I had to stop, and it would only get worse and worse the longer I went without touching matches." Steinke's prose is often dark, lovely, and poetic. When setting fire to a garage, for example, Ella says, "the fire trailed among the paint cans, until one by one they burst into dandelions, their ragged petals quivering in the hot wind." Other times, the author's attempts at poetry falter: "the cold air had a fluted sheen." The only reason these occasional bits of clunky prose are so jarring is that the rest of this book, with its brittle female characters and the disturbing allure of Ella's pain, is so well-wrought.
By Ren Steinke
William Morrow, 243 pp., $23
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