Who by Fire — Mary L. Tabor

Screen Shot 2015-03-16 at 12.19.31 PMWho by Fire

Mary L. Tabor

Outer Banks Publishing Group

276 pages

Who by Fire by Mary L. Tabor is an unusual work of fiction. The language is lyrical, reflective, meandering: its images laced with symbolism. Rather than follow a traditional dramatic arc, Robert – the narrator – drops memories like stones into still pools, and then observes the wave rings as they expand and collide, creating new patterns that lead to new collisions. In engineering physics, such collisions are described as “wave interference” – apt, considering the subject matter of Tabor’s novel.

Robert has recently lost his wife Lena to breast cancer. During her final illness he recognized that Isaac, an anthropologist and a colleague of Lena’s, was also her lover. As Robert attempts to review his life with Lena in the light of this new knowledge, he embarks on a vivid reimagining of her final months, and then of the years that preceded it. Slowly he begins to understand that he lost Lena long before she died.

In looking at Lena’s world from her perspective (for the first time, we suspect), and simultaneously examining the nature of “heroism” – a concept with which he has grown obsessed – Robert also gains a toe-hold on some of his own emotional flaws and their roots. He is not an easy man to like: he has withheld love from Lena at crucial moments in their marriage. He has deliberately and cruelly withheld touch. But he has also, we see, been too hard on himself at times: forces have been at work in Lena that were beyond his knowledge or capacity to change. And now there is nothing he can do but imagine Lena’s actual life, drop bits of what-might-have-happened into the landscape of what he knows, contemplate the repercussions, and try to find some meanings.

That landscape, the pond’s smooth surface, consists of the lives that Lena and Robert – and Isaac and Evan –- have led: they are well educated, well-to-do people in middle age whose days and nights are rich in music, art, gardening, entertaining, absorbing careers, expensive holidays. But for all their culture and education, Lena and Robert have been incapable of meaningful communication, and that has created a pain that has proven too wide to span.

I became aware of the work of Mary L. Tabor on WattPad where, as I was posting my own writing, I was also gradually sifting out the work of others on the site in an attempt to separate the serious writers from those who were dabbling. I was intrigued by a couple of pieces Tabor had posted there. Her work stood out from the rest, and this – her first novel but third published book – well represents the unique perspective and distinctive voice that attracted my attention.

(Note to blog followers: I realize that this book has the same title as one I reviewed last month, by Fred Stenson. This intrigued me, as one of my novels, The Woman Upstairs, has the same title as Claire Messud’s new novel. I am not however attempting to start a trend that will have you looking at my book review blog like a game of Concentration, attempting to find matching pairs. 🙂 )

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