"The Secrets of a Fire King"
(Reviewed by Guy Savage SEP 23, 2007)
"More than ever, the world seemed full of mysteries she could hardly comprehend, and the visible fell like a veil between herself and something else, something glimpsed at unexpected moments –a white curtain rising from an open window, or leaf shadows playing on the tiled floor of her room images that layered and gathered, inexplicable but powerful. Yet her intuitions could no longer be contained by the structures she had accepted all her life, and this discovery made her feel breathless, as if she stood on the edge of an abyss, even while the world went on much as it always had, knit back together by the ordinary day-to-day."
In the collection of fourteen short stories, The Secrets of a Fire King, author Kim Edwards presents an impressive range of different voices. Alienation is a common theme—alienation from a spouse, a loved one, a country, and even alienation from the self. Edwards explores this idea of alienation in various ways. Perhaps it comes in just a sudden, passing moment, or perhaps it lasts a lifetime. Sometimes it’s the alienation that grows from a failure to comprehend, but sometimes it’s an alienation that arrives with knowledge that separates the characters from the rest of their once-familiar world.
In “The Great Chain of Being” a young girl, the seventh child of thirteen, waits for her father to give her a special name. Her father is an “important man” whose revered position grants him instant respect from his family, and all the children look forward to being named, as it’s a sign that they’ve finally been noticed. To the father “everything is destiny,” and this is significant as he renames his children after various relatives. The granting of names became “legacies” of character, and the children’s destiny is “fixed” by a name. While others are given names of relatives who were known for various positive attributes, the teller of this tale discovers, painfully, “the idea of destiny is not an easy thing to shrug away.” In this story, the main character finally accepts her bitter destiny, but also realizes that the final chapter has yet to be written.
The weakest story in the collection, is “Spring, Mountain, Sea” which panders to several unfortunate clichés that begin with a Korean bride named Jade Moon who’s transplanted to upstate New York in the 1950s. Here, thanks to the narrow minds of the local women, she remains so alienated, that even her husband feels the yoke of her culture as he returns home each evening.
“A Gleaming in the Darkness” is a tale told by an old French woman. With her children swept away by war, she’s left alone with her memories, and she recalls the time she knew Marie Curie. As a young woman, the narrator cleaned the laboratory in which the Curies conducted their early experiments, and while this leads to some glorious memories for the narrator, these memories come with a terrible cost. The narrator recalls Madame Curie with great affection and admiration, and in spite of the differences between these two women, the narrator identifies with Marie Curie’s persistence and sacrifice.
“Balance” is the story of a troupe of acrobats. Françoise married Marc years earlier, and they were both forced to adjust their dreams of being world-class gymnasts. The acrobatic troupe is created in order to provide Marc a venue to continue to use his skills on the trapeze, and in the course of a performance, Marc analyzes his relationship with Françoise both on and off the trapeze.
In “The Way It Felt to Be Falling," Kate, a teenage girl discovers some rather unpleasant facts about her friend when they agree to a parachute jump as a fulfillment of a lost bet. Kate’s father has had a mental breakdown and she’s attracted to loner Stephen as he “understood the suspended world between sanity and madness.” In the course of an afternoon, Kate discovers the difference between madness and manipulation.
Set in Malaysia, “The Invitation” concerns the British wife of a factory owner whose view of herself and her life is shattered in one afternoon. This story is one of the weaker selections in the collection--it’s a little too pat, a little too easy--with the British wife a symbol of the fading British Empire and her American visitor far too simplistic and an embodiment of politically correct ideals.
In “Aristotle’s Lantern” Anne, a disillusioned physicians’ assistant becomes part of a cult-like community of researcher and environmentalists when she joins her boyfriend Phil on an island in the South China Sea. This excellent story, full of beautiful descriptions, creates a very odd atmosphere, and it’s impossible to tell quite which way this story will take the reader.
“The Secrets of a Fire King” is set in 19th century America and concerns Jasper, a fire-eater who lusts after a young girl. A preacher in a revival tent also casts his eye on the girl as a potential convert, and Edwards cleverly compare the wiles of the fire-eater to the thundering sermons by the preacher. They are both seasoned showmen, but just who will win is the subject of this story.
“Thirst” is a mystical tale narrated by a young mother. While she loves her husband and children, she longs to return to her native world. Here Edwards weaves the mythical with feminist undertones.
A young prostitute who works in a brothel tells “Sky Juice.” Forced into prostitution after the death of her brother, she eventually sets out with another, older prostitute on the only course available to them--arranged marriage.
In “Gold” a man who scrapes a living working on a rubber plantation suffers from gold-fever after his sister discovers a lump of gold in a riverbed. He imagines that the gold will be the beginning of a fortune that will yield all the material possessions owned by his white masters. Just what the gold brings is the subject of this well-wrought tale.
“In the Garden” is a superb story, set in Pittsburgh in the 1920s. Middle-aged industrialist, Andrew Byar begins an affair with Beatrice, the young daughter of a competitor. They meet in Andrew’s beautiful garden, and here they drink the “elixir of life”—liquid radium that Andrew believes will give them eternal life. He begins by feeding the radium to one of his prized orchids, and photographs taken daily chart the plant’s miraculous growth:
"Blossoms cascaded from stems grown so long that they draped themselves over one another, trailed against the ground. He went
immediately to the garden, where the orchid hung from the center of the trellis, its blossoms living jewels. He touched their waxy
white petals, their deep purple hearts, with awe. What had been ordinary had become something from another world, a place more
fertile more profuse, a place of unending plenty."
Does Andrew chase eternal youth because of Beatrice? Or is Beatrice just a glittering accessory to a middle-aged man’s dreams? This story serves as a companion to the story “A Gleaming in the Darkness.”
“Rat Stories” is one of the best stories in the collection. Claire, who’s married to Steve hosts Inez, who has arrived from the main office to inspect and assess Steve’s work. If the visit goes badly, Steve will not receive his funding, and since the financial climate is not healthy at the moment, Steve is naturally nervous and tense. Some of this tension spills onto Claire. The story describes the evening spent at Claire and Steve’s home, and they provide dinner for Inez and her assistant. Behind the smiles and light conversation, deeper issues are at play. Steve is quick to criticize Claire and fawns, almost embarrassingly, over Inez. The after-dinner conversation turns to the subject of rats, and it so happens that rats terrify Inez. Under the guise of social exchange, some rather pointedly nasty stories are exchanged, and it’s clear that there’s more here than meets the eye. In this story, Edwards captures the subtle, delicate undercurrents in a troubled marriage
Nichola, the daughter of a crusading evangelist, tells “The Story of My life.” Suffocated by her mother’s dominant personality, Nichola finally rejects her mother’s ideals and begins to think for herself when she’s asked to participate in terrorist tactics against abortion clinics. This is the first step Nichola takes to establish her own story and her own history as opposed to a version created by her zealot mother.
In this collection, Edwards crosses all boundaries—gender, race, and class and uses both modern and historical voices to tell her tales. Set in various cultures, these well-crafted tales transcend all divisions. “Rat Stories” and “In the Garden” were my favourites, and as a lover of the short story form, I appreciate the skill of distilling the essence of a tale into a few succinct pages.
- Amazon readers rating: from 16 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Secrets of a Fire King (1997; reprinted May 2007)
- The Memory Keeper's Daughter (June 2005)
- The Lake of Dreams (January 2011)
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- BookBrowse interview with Kim Edwards
- Official website for The Memory Keeper's Daughter
- Reading Guide for The Memory Keeper's Daughter
- BlogCritics review of The Memory Keeper's Daughter
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About the Author:
Kim Edwards was born in 1958 and grew up in Skaneateles, New York. She graduated from Colgate University and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she received an MFA in Fiction and an MA in Linguistics. After completing her graduate work, she went with her husband to Asia, where they spent the next five years teaching, first on the rural east coast of Malaysia, then in a small city an hour south of Tokyo, and finally in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
The Secrets of a Fire King, which was an alternate for the 1998 PEN/Hemingway Award, and has won both a Whiting Award and the Nelson Algren Award.
Kim Edwards received a Whiting Writers’ Award in 2002. She has taught in the MFA programs at Warren Wilson and Washington University, and is currently an assistant professor at The University of Kentucky.
She lives in Lexington, Kentucky with her husband and daughters and currently teaches writing at the University of Kentucky.