The Fire-Dwellers by Margaret Laurence


Jill's take on The Fire Dwellers by Margaret Laurence

I remember picking up The Fire Dwellers in the bookstore in Singapore and doing my customary reading through the first few pages. I had never read a Margaret Laurence book before nor, in fact, ever heard of her. I feel slightly ashamed to say that. It seems she was rather prolific and popular for a good while. Also, The Fire Dwellers seems the be the middle child in the “Manawaka series" and is generally speaking, not well liked compared to the other novels.

Seeing as I have no experience with the other books in the series and seeing as this is my only Margaret Laurence read, I can only provide my insights on The Fire Dwellers as a stand alone book. I would never have known it was part of a series in the first place as the story really can stand on its own. Stacey, the main character, is described as if this is the first time we're meeting here and all her bored, heartsick, suburban ennui glory. 

Even though the book was published in 1969, I still felt many of the themes resonated with life in the 21st century. Stacey finds herself questioning her life and existence in the face of a husband she cannot communicate with, kids that seem indifferent or antagonistic to her, a suburban life that is not at all fulfilling and feeling like she could have and should have been more than she is. Who among us hasn't felt this way? I know I have on so many occasions that as I read Stacey moving through these emotions I was subtly nodding my head and inwardly smiling with acknowledgement. I am sad to say that not much seems to have changed since then and that sort of made me melancholy while I was reading the book.

I loved how Margaret Laurence told this story. Sure the format was a bit non-traditional (she doesn't really use quotation marks, there's some confusing transitions to internal dialog, etc) but I found that I really enjoyed it. I thought Laurence was taking some risks in writing about a rather mundane subject. There's a lot that happens all at once in the book but that is book ended by a whole lot of internal thought, dialog and teeth gnashing. I'm not sure that Stacey grows much by the end of the novel, but I do think she becomes resolved to her life and trying to get through it the best way she can. I think that's all many of us do but wish it wasn't so.

I really enjoyed the language and the story of The Fire-Dwellers. I may well go back and read the rest of the books in the series. I definitely think Margaret Laurence is worth another read. 

Zac's take on The Fire Dwellers by Margaret Laurence

Margaret Laurence did a fantastic job of making me feel a particular type of anxiety faced as we reach middle age. The main character feels so trapped in her boring suburban life with her three kids who are constant distractions and her husband (as Jill mentioned) doesn’t talk to her. He is also trapped, but the focus isn’t on him. We only know he was in the war and it was clearly traumatic. All he wants to do is provide enough money for his family to survive and thrive - what else is necessary?

Well it turns out there is a lot that is needed. Like maybe a little communication and tenderness? Maybe less anger?

To be honest, I found myself looking at this man and his relationship with his wife and seeing parts of myself there. It’s not a good feeling because I really didn’t like him at all. He was a bit abusive and prone to anger, so as I was reading I was putting myself in her shoes and hearing myself being terse and frustrated at the dumbest things and taking it out unnecessarily on the one I love.

It really made me want to change and be a different person, which isn’t the typical result of reading a book you picked off the shelf rather randomly in a bookstore in a foreign country, right? It was a welcome door into a world I thought wasn’t my own - I don’t have kids, I’m not trapped in the suburbs - and yet I was drawn into this world and could see myself in it.

Isn’t that a unique talent? To be able to write so convincingly as to make your readers relate to what they are reading - however dissimilar to their actual lives?