House on Fire

by Charles Foran
311 pages,
ISBN: 0002245515

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Shifting Realities in Gyatso
by Lisa Salem-Wiseman

In House on Fire, the stunning new novel by Charles Foran, realities are fluid and never certain. For reasons unknown, Domenic Wilson, a Canadian businessman living in Hong Kong, is being detained in the capital city of the occupied nation of Gyatso, a land where morality is relative, and where human rights abuses and political killings are commonplace. Domenic has travelled to Gyatso, a fictional country based on Tibet, to conduct an interview with a local fiction writer, but he quickly finds himself regarded with a suspicion that seems at odds with his seemingly innocent purpose.

Domenic's journey begins with his discovery of the story "Ocean" by the Gyatsian author Tashi Delag in an anthology of short fiction. He quickly becomes obsessed with the story and its author, and travels to Gyatso, determined to talk to Delag. The story "Ocean" makes up the second of the novel's three parts, appearing without commentary. Foran's economy here is appreciable; he leaves it up to the reader to determine why the story causes such a shift in Domenic's stable and secure reality that, upon reaching the end, "he had no idea where he was." Significantly, the anthology in which Domenic discovers the story contains a typographical error in the biographical notes: Delag is identified as having been an actor and playwright "before turning into fiction." The error is quite telling; as Domenic discovers when he travels to Gyatso to interview Delag, the author does indeed seem to be a fabrication. Delag proves nearly impossible to locate, the press that published the anthology does not seem to exist, and when Domenic finally meets and interviews the elusive author, he discovers the next day that the interview could not have taken place. This is only one of many encounters in Gyatso that destabilize Domenic's ordered view of reality. The novel is replete with characters whose identities, affiliations, motivations, and sympathies are never certain. In Gyatso, and in House on Fire, the moral ground is always shifting, and the comfortable categories we use to understand our world are rendered useless.

Domenic's priorities undergo a radical alteration throughout the course of his strange stay in Gyatso. At its start, he is a devoted family man, whose main concern is that his wife be able to take their children trick-or-treating, should he be detained past Halloween. As he becomes an unwitting participant in the political struggles of a country in which one nation is ruled by another, he learns, in the words of a local man, that in Gyatso, family is A[n]ot all that matters...Not even very much.@ Foran, whose previous works include the non-fiction Sketches in Winter: A Beijing Postscript, an account of the events surrounding the Tiananmen Square massacre, and the critically acclaimed novel Butterfly Lovers, has created a novel which is both a compelling political thriller and a disturbing meditation on morality and responsibility. House on Fire is a gripping, thought-provoking, and emotionally affecting novel that, in elegant, evocative prose, asks the question: can one be a witness to atrocities and remain neutral, or is there a moral obligation to get involved that transcends political and national boundaries?


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