Colin Thubron is one of our greatest travel writers but is less well known as a novelist. Night of Fire marks his return to fiction after an absence of almost fifteen years. The novel’s ambition and scope are belied by the simplicity of its plot and structure. A ‘spark’ leads to a raging inferno in a run-down old house, divided into six flats. The landlord and his tenants are trapped in the burning building and as each one succumbs to the flames their life story is revealed through their memories, which are recorded in separate chapters. Each chapter can be read as a self-contained story, although all are linked by common themes, such as memory and identity, and by recurring motifs, such as stars and butterflies.
The landlord is a stargazing insomniac nursing a dying wife who, inexplicably, ‘lives the memories of others’. The tenants are defined largely by their occupations. They are a lapsed priest who loses his faith after a series of personal crises culminating in a stroke; a neurosurgeon who ‘knows