Home Fires

by K. Radu,
ISBN: 1550650319

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Lonely in Montreal
by Carole Giangrande

THE IDEA OF HOME has many aspects hearth and shelter, land of birth, human connection, and the native tongue in which our thoughts abide. All of these are part of Kenneth Radu's lengthy and engrossing new novel. It's set in Montreal, and the special resonance of home and country for Quebeckers echoes throughout this tale. The fires of the title also serve as a kind of language, a metaphoric home of sorts for people who are exiles in their own bodies, who took for comfort in sex but find none. All these nuances are embodied in a clutch of well-drawn -- if sometimes repugnant -- characters.

Brian, a handsome, narcissistic man on the make, has placed an ad in the personals in search of sexual companionship. He's married, but figures he's entitled to more novelty in bed than his wife, Giselle, will provide. His ad attracts a string of takers. These include Mariette, a widow who misses sex but doesn't want marriage. She feels trapped by the house her husband built and by its larger demand of middleclass propriety. Her rebellion is as social as it is personal. She works in a shelter for the homeless, a fact that dismays her mother and irritates Brian, who desires her nonetheless.

His sex-wanted ad also catches the eye of Jacques, an unemployed man who lifts weights and doesn't cut it with his dad, a working-class Pequiste who rails at his son's lack of political zeal. Jacques thinks his personal independence has more to do with stud fees than separatism. He soon answers the ad that really counts, the one that gets him work in a sex-shop.

Jacques's boss, Nick, is the pivot on which this novel turns, the character who most powerfully evokes its themes of home and exile. Nick is at home nowhere and, apparently, with no language. As a child, he emigrated to Quebec from eastern Europe, losing his native tongue to English, never becoming fluent in French. Stranded between languages, he's also trapped in a literal mind, one that regards metaphor as an intellectual weakness, better left to imprecise and useless Poets Such as his father.

Without the bridge that words offer between the known and the unknown, Nick is marooned inside himself, left with inarticulate pain that finds its way into a disturbing overlap of sex and arson. He can't abide his Vietnamese neighbours, fluent in French, happy and prospering in their new country. In a moment of irrational jealousy, he puts their backyard gazebo to the torch. Nick's wife, Wanda, drinks to blot out the truth of her husband's madness, then struggles to face it (along with his numerous infidelities) after a huge downtown fire she's sure Nick set.

The blaze guts the shelter for the homeless where Mariette works, and she decides to take Some of its outcasts into her well-appointed home. It's from muscle-man Jacques (doing stud duty across the street) that we learn how angry the neighhours are at this intrusion of the poor. His companion for the evening is one of these outraged people, bent Or) upholding neighbourhood standards; irony doesn't get better than this.

The same can be said for the resourcefulness of Nick's wife. Wanda wants to Confront Nick, to convey to him the fact that she knows what he's done. Nick I tries to make love to her on Christmas morning, a moving scene charged with his despair over the kind of man he's become. This adds impact to Wandas stunning -- and wordless confrontation. Having understood what she knows, Nick loses the pleasures of secrecy. The lure of pornography and fire begins to feel like a moral inversion, a thwarted quest of body and spirit for a rightful home. The story's ending allows Nick a sombre glimpse of human connectedness, of the hope that exists in the lives of others and of the torment he knows to be his.

Home Fires is a deeply satisfying novel by a perceptive and compassionate writer. Whether or not he intended it, Radu has also served Lip a subtle and witty text on politics and language, class and society, all of it animated with erotic sex -- a mix we tend to avoid in English-Canadian writing. It's more common these days for politically astute writers to categorize sex especially pornography -- as a form of oppression and to leave it at that. Radu never makes this mistake. He lets his characters dive into deep waters, into the passions of the body, letting them explore the powerful drives from which spring human connection and the abiding hope of community. This is an honest, courageous way to write politics into fiction, and Radu has done a fine job of it. Alt this and a dandy read, too.


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