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. 🙂 )


Who by Fire – Fred Stenson

Who By Fire CoverWho by Fire

Fred Stenson

359 pages, Doubleday


A Human Face for a Complex Issue

A surprising number of the world’s most destructive conflicts can be related in one way or another to differences of opinion over how to manage the Earth’s non-renewable resources. Heated disputes over the ownership, use and fate of fossil fuels rage across scientific, political, economic, historical and cultural boundaries — damaging individual and community relationships as surely as tailing ponds contaminate nearby flora and fauna. Fred Stenson has brought the destructive power of these debates and arguments to a human level in his latest novel, Who by Fire (named, like Leonard Cohen’s song, from the Hebrew prayer/poem “Unetaneh Tokef”).

Bill Ryder is just a boy when a sour-gas plant opens downwind of his parents’ southern Alberta farm. Poisonous gases released during a series of plant malfunctions make the family sick — particularly Billy himself — and threaten the health of the farm animals, and therefore the Ryders’ livelihood. Intensifying the devastation, Billy’s father’s decision to stay on his land and fight the gas company gradually pulls the family apart, and drives a wedge between the Ryders and other families in the community – almost all of whom who have  benefitted economically from the presence of the gas plant.

It is an ironic side effect of the family’s deterioration that as an adult, Bill ends up working as manager of an oilsands upgrader in northern Alberta. Now close to retirement, his choice of a career in the petroleum industry seems to have betrayed everything his father stood for — or failed to stand for. Bill’s life has been marked by a self-torment that has manifested itself in a gambling addiction and an apparently endless cycle of bad decisions. And then, at last, a crisis at the upgrader forces him not only to confront his past, but also to face himself.

Stenson is the highly regarded author of the acclaimed historical novels The Trade and Lightning, as well as of five other works of fiction and seven of nonfiction. In this new novel, he brings his enviable writing talents — which include the ability to create memorable, flawed and sympathetic characters, and an uncanny facility for evoking in a few words not only the landscape of the province of Alberta (no matter what the season or terrain) but also his deep affection for it — to bear on issues that face us all. We are the Ryders, growing sicker by the day from our over-reliance on gas and oil, but we are also the community that shuns the Ryders: our economic well being, too, depends on the continuing exploitation of our fossil fuels.

Like the unknown Jewish poet who long ago presented so many possible scenarios in response to the question of “Who will live and who will die?” —

Who in their time, and who not their time?
Who by fire and who by water?
Who by sword and who by beast?
Who by hunger and who by thirst? ….

– we realize that any outcomes to this conflict over oil and gas will not be straightforward, or painlessly accomplished. And in the meantime our hostility and indecision are not only ravaging the Earth, they are also eroding our humanity.

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