When I was contacted by author Diana Spechler to review her book Who By Fire (368 pgs, Harper Perennial, 2008), I was flattered. I was also a little hesitant. I always feel a certain amount of pressure to like a book, knowing it was sent by the author, herself. But there was no need to worry when reading this book. Diana Spechler's debut novel is fantastic! I can only hope she keeps writing!
from the Prologue:
After Alena disappeared, my mother was brimming with blame. She blamed the state police for not making enough of an effort. She blamed other families for not understanding. If my father sat down to watch TV, she would say, "You think your daughter has the luxury of watching television?" She started grinding her teeth so hard, she had to wear a mouth guard. For a year, she dragged Ash and me all over New Jersey, making us tape up fliers to telephone poles, as if we had lost her favorite cat. She never directly blamed us, her two remaining children, but she ofter began a thought with, "If it had been you instead of Alena...." Of course, she always followed that up with "Don't give me that look. I never said I wished it had been you. God forbid. What do you take me for?" But we have always understood: Alena was the baby. Alena was the favorite. Six-year-old Alena, with the paint-brush black hair and the chin dimple and the jeans rolled halfway up her calves, Alena imitating our eighty-four-year-old neighbor's smoker voice, Alena whizzing through the kitchen on roller skates with pink wheels -- Alena was the irreplaceable one.
Thirteen years after six-year-old Alena was kidnapped, the Kellerman family is still feeling the affects. Bits, the older sister, uses sex and men to try to fill the void in her soul caused by her sister's disappearance. Ash, the older brother, left college his freshman year to travel to Israel. His void is filled with religion. He has moved to a yeshiva to become an Orthodox Jew. And Ellie, the mother, spends her days trying to rescue her remaining children.
Ash has cut himself off from the rest of his family. Feeling more guilt than the others, he thinks the only way he can atone for his past "sins" is to live the Orthodox lifestyle. Ellie and Bits thinks he's gone and joined a cult. But when Alena's body is recovered after all these years, it's up to Bits to try and bring Ash home. Bits, the girl that can't even take care of herself.
This novel is about love and loss; grief and guilt. It is about broken people and their need to try to "fix" the other. Each person has handled this horrible tragedy in his own way and each to an extreme. Diana Spechler has created some intensely flawed characters and brought them to life. With each mistake made, the reader draws closer to the characters. They are extremely human and very well written.
Hard to read at times, Who by Fire is an excellent debut from a very talented writer. Although I spent a lot of time wanting to shake these people, I fell in love with the Kellermans. Especially Bits. Having lost a sibling myself, I could so totally relate to her that at times it was scary. This is a highly recommended read for everyone that loves a book with an intensely character-driven plot. This book deserves to be read. 4.5/5