Who by Fire is a contemplative novel on guilt, forgiveness and acceptance. As you probably are wondering, the first thing that jumped at me was the intriguing title of the book. Since the novel is based on a Jewish family that is choked with guilt and hurt, the title is derived from the Rosh Hashanah prayers. Along the lines of the Christian belief of Judgment Day, the Jews believe that on Rosh Hashanah, God inscribes the deeds of every man and woman, and on Yom Kippur (the day of Atonement), their fates are decided and sealed:
“How many shall pass on, and how many shall be born. Who shall live, and who shall die; who in his time, and who before his time; who by water, and who by fire; who by sword, and who by beast; who by hunger, and who by thirst; who by earthquake, and who by plague. Who shall rest, and who shall wander. Who shall fall, and who shall rise..."
Onto the story. The book follows the derailed lives of Ash, Bits and their mother, all of whom are still suffering the loss of the youngest child of the family, Alena. Following Alena’s disappearance, the shaky family structure crumbles. The dad abandons the family, the mother constantly despairs and unintentionally stifles her other children with her paranoia and sorrow. Due to lack of emotional support and low self-esteem, Bits resorts to mindless sex as her painkiller. And Ash, the young boy laden with guilt, takes to religion and spiritual belief for comfort. The book starts with all these characters in their varied stunted states, and takes the reader through the arduous journey that the characters take to get to a place of acceptance and peace.
Diana Spechler realistically portrays her characters - their anxiety, sorrow, guilt, and pain come across well in the story. I could sympathize with all the characters floundering in their own ways to patch up the holes in the family fabric. Although the book is surely morose, it has a strand of positivity wrapping itself around the characters. The story is character-driven and doesn’t have a plot as its focal point, so it does move slow. But despite the heavy focus on the characters, I didn’t find them to be that well-defined. I thought Ash’s character was the most well-drawn.
As one of the main themes, Spechler delves into the calming benefits offered by religion during difficult times. I appreciated that she handled this theme in a balanced manner - she shows the inherent hypocrisies and the ways in which religion can be made into a disgraceful charade, but she also heavily emphasizes the role religion/spirituality plays in finding peace, acceptance and meaning in life. As I have mentioned several times before, I believe that religion can be a constructive belief system which can help us handle tragedy and move on to live life, responsibly. It is acceptable if one has to take a few misguided turns before figuring out the crux of such beliefs, and understanding what the “right dosage” of practice is. This is precisely what Diana demonstrates.
Digested Thoughts: The book deals with interesting and realistic themes on coping with loss and guilt. Although most of the book was grim, and it was frustrating to see the characters flee from reality, the ending was optimistic. I also liked how Spechler nicely showcases the varying shades of religion. However, I struggled to get involved in the book, and unfortunately the writing didn’t sustain (or augment) my interest. Finally, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the way Spechler handled the topic of Orthodox Judaism being perceived as a stringent “cult” by some. So in all, although it was an interesting read, for the most part, it didn’t leave an impression on me.