Book review

The Fire-Eaters by David Almond (2003)

Do you remember how you felt on that day that we now all call 9/11?

Did you feel you were teetering on the brink of awful destruction? And in that moment when you may have felt that your very way of life was threatened, did you become instantly more aware of all the simple and beautiful things that really make your life special?

That's how it is for Bobby Burns in this story, but it isn't set in 2001. The story belongs to 1962 and the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis when Russia and the United States faced each other with nuclear missiles:

'We're in as grave a crisis as mankind has ever been in,' he said.
'We must try to stay calm,' he said.
He chewed his lips.
'We're standing at the gates of hell,' he said.

There are other things, too, in Bobby's life that shake him to the very core of his being. His father is ill, and Bobby fears that he will die. Not only that, Bobby has just passed to the local grammar school, which he finds to be a brutal place.

His best friend, Ailsa Spink, the sea coaler's daughter, also passed to the grammar school, but she has yet to be persuaded of the need to go to school at all. She is happy on the beach with her father and brothers, and Wilberforce the pony, collecting the coal.

And there's Daniel Gower. He's an outsider, who brings a fresh perspective to some of the old practices that the locals take for granted.

It's a defining time for Bobby. He is about to decide which treasures from his old life are worth saving, and fighting for:

Keely Bay. It's a tiny corner of the world. It's nothing to the universe. A tatty place, a coaly beach by a coaly sea. I know that we don't matter. Maybe nothing matters. Whatever happens the stars will go on shining and the sun will go on shining and the world will go on spinning through the blackness and the emptiness. But it's where I live and where the people I love live and where the things I love live.

Another beautiful, quiet, lyrical hymn to humanity from David Almond. In his own way David Almond takes us to our own gates of hell, and then shows us the way back out again. Highly recommended.

What can I read next?

It's beautiful stuff. David Almond has written other books, all around the theme of healing the spirit. Have a look at these:

If you like to read stories that are almost poetry, you could have a look at practically anything by Michael Morpurgo:

Or you might like to look at this brooding 'coming of age' story by Odo Hirsch:

Also, the Bookchooser has found these books with a similar profile:

The Fire-Eaters features in these lists: