Review: The Fire Starters by Jan Carson

The Fire Starters by Jan Carson

Categories: Literary Fiction, Magical Realism

First Publication Date: 4. April 2019

Synopsis: Dr Jonathan Murray fears his new-born daughter is not as harmless as she seems.

Sammy Agnew is wrestling with his dark past, and fears the violence in his blood lurks in his son, too.

The city is in flames and the authorities are losing control. As matters fall into frenzy, and as the lines between fantasy and truth, right and wrong, begin to blur, who will these two fathers choose to protect?

The Fire Starters surprised me by being a delightfully magical book, both devastating and funny, I had initially expected it to be similar in tone to Milkman by Ann Burns, but it really isn’t, although I would argue that fans of that book will also enjoy this one. For one, this is set after the Troubles, in a contemporary or slightly futuristic setting. And where Milkman has a dense atmosphere of tension that becomes suffocating by the end (in an excellent way), in The Fire Starters the atmosphere leaves more breathing space, even with the stakes getting higher and heartbreaking decisions needing to be made. This is probably helped by the interlude chapters with the stories of children with superpowers, whimsical and beautiful interruptions to the story that help build the world of The Fire Starters.

It is not exactly a thriller but it reads quite quickly and it’s very suspenseful; I felt like I had been holding my breath until the very last page and I was texting Rachel every two minutes about it (please everyone go read her brilliant review). The writing is what cemented this as a 5-star read for me: it was so beautiful, witty and smart that I constantly re-read pararaphs to make sure I absorbed everything and enjoyed every word. Jen Carson takes us through a range of emotions, from laughing out loud at some of Jonathan’s cringe-worthy thoughts to having my heart broken to pieces by Sammy’s rage and his pain about Mark repeating his history of violence.

Jen Carson portrays the humanity of the characters so wonderfully, giving them depth, even if they showed up for the briefest of chapters. The way she talks about violence and heritage is thoughtful and it never feels like anything happens for shock value.

There are a couple parts where I felt the book lost steam, but these didn’t last long and I suspect the author did that on purpose to give the reader a false sense of security. This book is criminally underrated with 94 reviews on Goodreads as of now and it was not entirely easy to acquire (it’s not available as an ebook!).

If you enjoyed Milkman by Ann Burns and The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht, I think you will enjoy this one, too. It’s a fantastic mix of literary fiction, suspense and just enough magic to make it irresistible.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

7 thoughts on “Review: The Fire Starters by Jan Carson

  1. I loved both Milkman and The Tiger’s Wife, but they’re such different novels, so I’m intrigued as to what a combination of the two might look like! I think this has been on my TBR since Rachel’s review, but this has encouraged me to prioritise it.


  2. Lovely review – I’m always here for championing underrated books! I haven’t read much magical realism but The Fire Starters sounds like it would be a great intro to the genre 📚❤️ X


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  5. I just finished this and found it a little terrifying right from the first chapter, that underlying tension of not knowing what the father’s were going to do, especially the Doctor, who doesn’t seem to have any conscience regarding the barbarity if his solution.

    I found listening to Jan Carson talk about her work with community art really interesting as well, teaching the soft skills of empathy through creativity.


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