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K.H. Leigh's Blogstravaganza

Reader, writer, 'rithmaticker.

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The House of Mirth
Edith Wharton, Nina Bawden
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Portia Rosenberg, Susanna Clarke

The Light of the Fireflies

The Light of the Fireflies - Paul Pen, Simon Bruni I honestly can't decide whether or not I liked this book.

On the one hand, it was certainly compelling. It kept me interested enough to polish it off in two sittings. But on the other hand, the only real emotion it brought out in me was fury over the lack of justice the characters faced.

I don't necessarily require likable characters to like a book - sometimes, people you love to hate can be extremely interesting and fun to read. But villains need to be well-rounded, and they need to have depth, and there has to be some logic behind their depravity, even twisted or psychopathic logic. The characters in "Fireflies" lacked that, because the underlying explanation for their villainy was absurdly, almost laughably, weak.

The theme for the book seemed to be that parents will do anything to protect their children, out of a deep and unwavering love, and even their most vile actions can and should be forgiven if committed in this noble purpose. And while that may or may not be true, it's not applicable to these characters. They raise their trumpets and shout to the heavens that their choices were made because they love their child so deeply, and are willing to sacrifice everything for his sake, willing to make mistakes for his sake, willing to damn themselves for his sake, but what the book never really confronts head on is the rather obvious fact that this proclamation of theirs is a bold-faced lie.

They do it for themselves.

Their flight to the basement was to save their own skins after their complicit coverup in the rape and manslaughter of a little girl, committed by their elder son. They didn't lock themselves away for his sake, but because they had conspired together to commit a horrendous crime.

And why did they commit this crime? Again, they claim that it was out of love for their son, to protect him, but again this is an obvious lie. They admit right away, as the little girl's body was rotting on their living room floor, that their son's young age and reduced mental capacity reduces his culpability for his crime. He truly didn't know what he was doing. Why, then, is it necessary to hide the evidence rather than alert the authorities? To keep him out of prison? Perhaps, but even the father admits that he didn't think about the legal consequences so much as the social consequences. He doesn't want the townsfolk to think badly of his son - from which we can glean that he's ultimately concerned about how they will think of him.

But let's examine the prison excuse. They don't want the boy to be locked up, so instead they... lock him up. They create their own prison for him in their basement, and while it they can stock it with all the movies and books and games and food he'll like, make no mistake - it's still a prison. Had they called the police, the boy would likely have lived out his days in a secure hospital, surrounded by staff equipped to care for him, peers he could form friendships with, and perhaps even the chance to go outside occasionally and get some fresh air. But no, this family decides it's better to shut him up in a dark basement, lock him in so he can never get out, with no windows, no one to talk to, and only the meager sunlight that can slip through a crack in the ceiling. How is this better? How is this an act of love?

It isn't. They lie to themselves, saying it's done out of parental love, but it's exactly the opposite. The entire plan is hatched to punish their other child, whom they openly hate. They routinely use their elder son as a tool to impose cruelty upon their daughter, while pretending that they are acting out of parental love.

She bears some responsibility for the accident that damaged him, that took his brain and so much of his future away from him. But she was fourteen years old at the time, just barely older than her brother was when he raped a child who was injured and immobile on the rocks in the sea and then left her there to die. And yet his crime is instantly forgiven and given a full mafia treatment - bury the body in cement and tell no one. But the daughter's crime of neglecting to call an ambulance after her brother fell down the stairs while in her charge was never forgiven, not even for a moment. For the next four years she suffered emotional abuse, as confirmed by the grandmother, and perpetual punishment from her parents. Then she spent a decade locked with them in the basement, punished daily by being forced to wear a mask over her face just because her father couldn't stand to look at her, and all because she didn't want to let them get away with the terrible crime they committed.

God, this family is completely fucking horrendous - at least, the mother, father, and grandparents are. The daughter is the only sympathetic character (aside from the young children who were born after the descent to the basement). Yes, she burns them, but only out of self defense after they imprison her to cover up their own lies. Yes, she tries to kill the baby, but only because she is being forced to care for the product of a rape committed by her own brother, with whom her parents had locked her up in an enclosed space even though they knew he had raped someone before. Her grandmother's Catholicism extended far enough to forbid the abortion of the rape baby, but not so far as to prevent dumping a child's body in a septic tank and covering her with cement.

Again and again and again and again the family punishes the daughter for her original misdeed, then punishes her every time she subsequently lashes out. And in the end, she gets brutally murdered.

The most frustrating part comes at the end, in the epilogue, when the protagonist has grown up and taken over the role of providing for his mole family. Their lies continue as they claim to have "let him go" out of love, claim that they gave him every opportunity to "choose" to leave the basement, claim that they only wanted what was best for him. But again, this is obviously a lie. They needed a caregiver on the outside. They needed someone that they had manipulated and broken down enough that he would remain loyal to them, even after he watched them murder his sister in cold blood, even after he learned everything they had put her through.

And he lets them get away with it, which is just completely fucking frustrating. The father's lament at the end, his memory of his daughter as a tiny child, seals it. Her greatest crime was growing up. The action her family couldn't forgive was that she stopped being their baby. Their elder son was spared her fate, because the accident left him a perpetual child. And for daring to grow up, she was abused, imprisoned, raped, and murdered.

And none of the people who did these things to her even seemed to understand why.

So where does that leave me, the reader? This book certainly made me think, it certainly got under my skin, it certainly held my interest. But can I forgive the trespasses of the characters, and the even greater trespass of the author for failing to bestow them with any level of humanity - even evil humanity? For failing to make them aware of their own thought processes? For creating a family of automatons who seemed to carry out actions only as a means of forwarding the plot, without any concern whatsoever to whether or not their behaviors could be attributed to their character?

Can I dismiss out of hand a book with such glaring faults if it has stirred such fervent contemplation within me? Am I even capable of discerning whether or not I "liked" it, or do I just let the experience of reading it wash over me, let it be something that happened to me one day, maintain neutrality in my criticism? I honestly don't even know.