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Instant Fires by Andrew Meehan: love’s many forms

Book review: inherited familial and national histories weigh heavily on this novel’s interconnected characters

Instant Fires
Instant Fires
Author: Andrew Meehan
ISBN-13: 9781848408364
Publisher: New Island
Guideline Price: €15.95

Andrew Meehan’s third novel, Instant Fires, is a love story or, perhaps more accurately, many love stories, set in relief against one another. At its centre is a blooming relationship between two broken people. Ute Pfeiffer has returned to her hometown of Heidelberg, Germany, following a failed relationship in Ireland. When she sees Seanie Donnellan — “another Irish man” — drive over a hen in her parents’ yard, it ignites something in her.

Seanie is grieving the death of his father and trying to “figure a few things out” in life. He has been providing companionship to Ute’s deteriorating father and marijuana to her floundering mother. The potential for love is a lifebuoy for these two characters, but love’s many forms: forbidden love, suffocating love, adulterous love, one-sided love and so on are explored through the book’s many interconnected characters.

National identities are a theme and are dealt with in an interesting way. Ute’s take on the Irish comportment feels harshly accurate. “Irish faces were so unreliable,” she thinks. “Hours and hours of conversation and you wouldn’t know one thing about that person.” Meanwhile, Germany is on the brink of winning the 2014 World Cup and a resulting “resurgence in national confidence” plays ominously against the book’s allusions to the Pfeiffer family’s dark history. Ute is “used to feeling ashamed” of her family and thinks anyone with her surname “needs to think carefully about parenting”. Inherited familial and national histories weigh heavily on these characters.

Style is the book’s pre-eminent feature. There’s a Hiberno slant to the sentences — ‘had you a sense of humour you’d have called it religious’ — and beneath any melancholy, a dry humour

The book’s momentum doesn’t always take, whether because of the shifting third-person narrator (not an unusual choice, but a difficult one to pull off), or because of the many story threads arising from this multitude of perspectives. The book is laid out in two parts, with a dividing chapter, Wine With Lunch, as though it is a menu. But it feels like it is trying to do something too clever, and the reader can easily become lost or confused.

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Style is the book’s pre-eminent feature. There’s a Hiberno slant to the sentences — “had you a sense of humour you’d have called it religious” — and beneath any melancholy, a dry humour — “He was a great believer these days in the universe, and a great believer in its cruelty”. Not unlike the river Neckar “trying to hypnotise you and have its way”, the rhythms and observations of this book are what draw you in and keep you reading.

Niamh Donnelly

Niamh Donnelly, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and critic