Miranda France’s second novel, The Day Before the Fire, is narrated by Ros, a paper conservator with a fine eye for the telling detail. The book opens boldly during that grimmest of periods: pre-Christmas shopping. Ros receives a phone call from her business partner, Frieda, to tell her that Turney House has burned down. Turney is, as far as this novel is concerned, one of the architectural glories of London, an 18th-century pleasure palace built with no expense spared by a family whose success was founded on the slave trade. Some details, it appears, have more weight than others.
For Ros, Turney holds many fascinations. The restoration is led by Lady Alexandra Marchant, chatelaine of the house, the much younger wife of Lord Marchant, polished and determined and, frankly, a bitch. She insists, amid arguments with the insurers, that Turney should be returned to exactly how it was the day before the fire. Ros and Frieda get the job of restoring the Rose Room, famous for its Victorian wallpaper. While this act of physical restoration is carried out, Ros is trying – or not – to restore her marriage.
Her husband, Chris, is an engineer. He feels they’ve been married long enough and he wants children. She doesn’t. There’s a rift. She asks for some time apart to work it out. She doesn’t ‘want not having children to become the defining tragedy of [her] life’. It has stiff competition,