So I just finished reading The Burning Air by Erin Kelly and I thought it was pretty great. It’s a novel that is definitely not without it’s faults but by the end I found myself entertained and sufficiently satisfied. It’s nice to start 2016 on an upswing, ain’t it? Let’s dive in.
The Burning Air is a novel all about revenge and it’s quite densely packed. There’s a lot going on, both in the past and in the present. At the start of the book, the wealthy Macbride family are attending an annual gathering at a country house in Devon. This year, the gathering is tainted with sadness as the matriarch, Lydia, has died. Daughter Sophie travels to Devon with her husband Will, her older children and newborn baby Edie. As the family gathers, Sophie’s brother, Felix (who is disfigured from an attack when he was younger) reveals he has brought a girlfriend with him, a rather quiet girl named Kerry. Things kick off when Kerry is left looking after baby Edie as the family go out. When they return, Kerry has disappeared, along with the youngest Macbride.
From this point the narrative takes a swerve back to 1996, where events start to explain just who Kerry is and why she would want to do the Macbride’s harm. The second part also reveals an unknown, a child named Darcy, who harbors a very particular resentment of the family.
It’s hard to talk about the plot much more than that (even the last sentence was a bit difficult) because The Burning Air’s secrets do rely on unfurling themselves slowly over the course of the narrative. In that respect, it’s also hard to explain the negatives of the book without dropping some pretty hefty spoilers. I’ll try not to though.
Up front, The Burning Air seems to be about the kidnapping of Edie, but (all due respect to the little one) it’s really not about that at all. The cover and the tagline are enough to show you that, but really this story is about so much more. Given the initial idea of what you are going into, it seems weird when the narrative jumps into the past and starts following this kid called Darcy. It takes a while to get invested in Darcy’s story, because there is no indication of this person told to the reader upfront in the blurb or anything outside of the novel. Once the past narrative hots up and starts concerning itself more with the Macbride family, that negative falls away, but I did find myself asking just what the Sam-hell was going on for a few dozen pages.
Now, to the ultimate negative which I can pretty much say nothing at all. I feel the first big twist of the book is a little cheap and induced in me not only confusion, but an intense groan. The best twists make us re-contextualise everything we have seen or read beforehand, and while The Burning Air‘s Twist #1 does do that, it also detracts from the actual story. If all the facts were told upfront, I would have liked the book a lot more. It’s also a twist that would never really work in any other medium than a novel. It’s a twist where you, as the reader, are placed on a level lower than the characters, and to a greater extent, Kelly herself. Sometimes the reader has to be on that level, but it’s not really advisable from a writer’s point of view, to revel in the fact that you shoved them down there in the first place. It’s a bizarre twist, so much so that I have had to be careful how I word some of this review so I don’t give it away.
The better parts of the narrative are the slow-burning reveals of every Macbride’s character. For example, Felix is a tragic figure, picked on for his disfigurement and used as a tool in someone else’s plot. Lydia is a ferocious woman, willing to do anything to protect her family from the evil in the world and harbouring a special kind of self-resentment at her failures to do so. The characters are all incredibly well-realised, with their own sets of flaws and eccentricities. It’s a pleasure to spend time with them.
There were moments when I felt like I wasn’t enjoying The Burning Air, mainly when I was taken away from the central characters for pages of backstory. However, at the end, looking back at it all, I can appreciate the novel as a whole, seeing how these quieter moments were needed for the greater payoff. And Act Three is indeed a hell of a payoff. Oh, and that title actually makes sense too in quite a nice and poetic way.
The Burning Air by Erin Kelly is a box of secrets that begs to be unpacked. While the narrative doesn’t hold up in every respect, it is easy to see how every piece of the puzzle was important for the final payoff. Kelly tells the tale with a beautiful style of writing that is simple a joy to read, and the characters of the Macbride family and the skeletens in their respective closets will stick with you long after the final page.
THE BURNING AIR by ERIN KELLY