July 2023
Daniela Krien: The Fire

The book cover showing a woman balancing on a rope surrounded by sky, lying on a blanket with a pair of sunglasses and a drink
© Maclehose Press

Set over the course of a summer holiday in the country, Daniela Krien’s The Fire is a carefully wrought portrait of a marriage which reflects on society as a whole – an atmospheric, character-driven novel that will appeal to fans of Ann Patchett.

Daniela Krien’s latest novel begins with a fire. An unseen fire. We experience it second-hand, as main protagonist Rahel does: in a phone call telling her that, three days before their arrival, the holiday cottage she’s booked for herself and her husband, Peter, has burned down. Hot on its heels comes another piece of news, even more concerning; Viktor, the husband of her mother’s best friend, Ruth – a couple Rahel regards almost as parents – has suffered a stroke and been sent to a rehabilitation clinic. Their house and animals require looking after for three weeks. Can Rahel and Peter step in?

Thus begins a slender work of fiction which, like all Daniela Krien’s novels, appears on the surface as calm as the lake in which Peter and Rahel spend their summer swimming. Beneath its pared-back prose, however, is a complex swirl of currents. The Fire is a novel of politics and memory, about the places we assume as individuals in society, the relationships we build – and break. It is about mothers and daughters, mothers and sons, decades-old marriages and middle-aged white men who have fallen out of step with the world around them. It’s about routine acts that build the day-to-day, about good intentions and difficult decisions, the transformations wrought by a simple change of scene. It’s about life, death, secrets and squabbles, about getting older, about listening, about whom we love and how.

The Fire is, in short, a novel about being human – but, as Krien is wont to do, it also takes a broader view of society. This technique is also used with much success by Ann Patchett. In novels such as The Dutch House and Commonwealth she homes in on the details of her characters’ lives such that they leap off the page, yet these fictional stitches conspire to create a tapestry of the very real world and encourage us to consider how we, too, live in it.

While Rahel is ostensibly the main character in The Fire, Peter is of equal importance: a man for whom the world is changing too fast; who, seen through his wife’s eyes, gives rise to feelings of pity, frustration and devotion. Reflected in Peter’s not entirely successful relationships with his wife, his children and his students, we see how society has changed dramatically in recent decades, from German reunification right through to the pandemic. And emanating partly from Viktor’s hospital bed – another unseen element of the novel, just like the titular fire – as well as from Peter’s struggle to stay present in both his marriage and the world at large, we find a vague sense of threat, a feeling that perhaps it’s all a bit too late for this couple – even for us. And yet, as the days tick by, there’s reason to hope. Discoveries are made. Relationships redrawn. Each morning brings fresh air and the chance to start anew.

The hallmarks of Krien’s fiction – with which readers of Love in Five Acts will be familiar – are engaging characters, finely tuned sentences and a wry sense of humour, all of which make this astute, atmospheric novel a true delight to read. In Jamie Bulloch’s elegant translation, The Fire is a gently thought-provoking work of fiction that transports its reader wholesale to other lives and places – perfect for consuming in the course of a long summer’s day.

About the author

Eleanor Updegraff is a committed bookworm with a particular penchant for literature in translation. She makes her living from words in all forms: as a ghostwriter, German–English translator, copy-editor and book reviewer, and author of short stories and creative non-fiction. She grew up in the UK and has lived in Austria in 2015, where she’s often to be found in a coffee shop or running around a lake

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