Fire from the Sun by John Derbyshire
Chu Hartley Publishers, February 10th, 2012
According to Amazon, I bought this book on April 8th, 2012 which was but a few days after the author of the subject of this review published an article that ended his participation (and employment) in mainstream conservative circles. I remember buying the book as a way of showing solidarity with him as well as sending a short, supportive email his way. I discovered John Derbyshire through his writings on politics and society and have been following his work since the second half of 2008. However prior to this, he was already an accomplished author with two popular works on mathematics and another successful (and much shorter) novel to his name. Despite the date of publication listed, this book actually dates back to the late 1990s before technology had come along enough to make large-scale digital publishing viable.
I began Fire from the Sun around the time I bought it and stopped a short way in when I noticed how long it was. This was not because I was bored but because I didn’t have a Kindle or any device that would make reading a work this long very comfortable. As often happens with books I shelve, I suddenly decided I wanted to read it and began it from the beginning and now with a device that made reading it much more comfortable.
The first thing that is worth mentioning is that despite six years passing since I first began to read it, I hadn’t forgotten what happened and read the first part of the book with a good familiarity with the characters and setting. I was immediately fascinated at first and still am after finishing with all the details Mr. Derbyshire goes into about the living circumstances of the characters. From the next paragraph onwards there will what they like to call “spoilers” so stop here if this is enough to get you interested.
The early part of the of the narrative introduces both main characters Weilin and Yuezhu (later anglicised as William and Margaret), in their childhoods at a public swimming pool. They live in a smaller region of China called Seven Kill Stele and very much under the power of Mao Zedong’s Communist Government. This becomes very important for both characters (and very soon), but what I particularly enjoyed were the descriptions of little things about their world. The poorly fitting and poor quality swimsuits, the small little luxuries they could get and the way they observe the adults around them. The way as children they found contentment in what little they had and how easily those small comforts came to be lost.
When Mao begins his Cultural Revolution, both children found their families on opposite sides and this is no Romeo and Juliet. Yuezhu resolutely sides with her family and Weilin’s academic father finds himself on the wrong side despite his caution. He is soon beaten before his son’s eyes and later dies from the injuries leaving Weilin and his mother without a provider or a home. Yuezhu, the little girl he was once friends with is firmly on side with the perpetrators. Weilin and his mother having no other family left, flee their home for refuge with their extended family.
This sets in motion events that sees the child Weilin struggling without a father and soon a mother. It leads him to different parts of China before Hong Kong and eventually New York. At the same time Yuezhu’s life continues in relative comfort. Having a father and soon a brother in the People’s Revolutionary Army, she has enough status and wealth to further her talents and ends up training as a professional singer. After some struggle and suffering herself, she too ends up in New York where the two eventually meet again.
Much of the characters lives are tied to the events of the times in which they grow up. They are both shaped by their experiences in their native land but they also experience the United States of the 1980s with Wall Street, the AIDS epidemic and the corruption and decadence of the entertainment and finaincial industries around them. In many ways, this is something of a modern epic and both characters experiences vary from intense happiness to misery with the periods of normalcy passed over quickly. After all, what interest would we have in a story where everything happens much as expected?
This gives a fairly decent description of the novel but I want to move onto what really grabbed me and I confess, often troubled me – and still does more than a months after finishing it. That was the fate of William.
Mr. Derbyshire does not shy a way in dealing with the seedier and even sinister aspects of the human experience and William is the one bearing the brunt of this. From witnessing his father’s savage beating, his otherwise normal upbringing is changed forever. His mother is never the same after losing her husband and soon loses the will to go on herself and leaves her son with instructions to attempt to find a relative in Hong Kong as his only hope.
Already having suffered so much, the still young William is nearly raped and killed by pirates trying to escape the mainland. He soon ends up stuck on the street in Hong Kong after being sent away by his relative. After being arrested for theft he is soon taken in by a foreign man who has disgusting motivations to do so. William survives and despite it all is able to scrape together an education with his natural talents and taking the opportunities he is given. However he is noticeably changed for the worse by these experiences.
I am not sure what Mr. Derbyshire was thinking when writing this novel. It is always tempting to assume a writer is writing primarily from his own experience but he would claim otherwise and it is true this is not always the case. A lot what is experienced by William seems to me to have been given too much detail and includes paedophilia, pederasty and unnecessarily detailed descriptions of sodomy. There were many times when I felt physically disgusted and had to remind myself that this didn’t really happen. But similar stories to William’s have and certainly much worse. People who have experiences like this can rise above them or repeat them on others. William grows from a kind-hearted child into a psychopath.
Outwardly, William is good-looking, polite and intelligent. He obeys the law, is gracious and helps others (especially those who help him). But inside there is a deep brooding and anger towards those who hurt him and his family and a desire for revenge that he goes about methodically as soon as he has the resources to do so. One of these targets is Margaret who he meets in New York at a party after becoming rich on Wall Street. While in school studying opera, she was exiled to a remote part of China after a teacher with whom she was close turns out to be a spy. As it later turns out, he was nothing of the sort and William had been entirely responsible for framing the teacher to get at her.
Margaret had survived this ordeal and through some luck and her undoubted skill as a young singer, ends up travelling to Europe and then the United States. While William becomes a success in the financial world pioneering a new type of financial security; Margaret becomes a young sensation in the world of Opera. There are parallels in their origins and their trials at becoming successful in these fields but these parallels stop with their personal relationships.
Margaret makes genuine friends but to William, people are either useful or they are not. He calculates whether or not someone is worthy of his attention based on his needs. He ruthlessly deals with the people that have wronged him and anonymously rewards those who helped. He seeks sexual relief with men and women but mostly favours the former almost certainly as a result of being molested as a child. There are some moments where his soul tries to breakthrough again after the destruction wrought in his childhood but they are rare. One such is when he begins courting Margaret who has forgiven him after finding out he was responsible for her exile. For William though, even this is artificial and he seems to be looking for a wife because Margaret would be suitable and that’s what people do. This comes across even though she was his childhood sweetheart and had their lives not taken radical turns, that they would have married in China.
It is when the direction of the novel seems to be heading to a happy ending that William discovers he is HIV positive from one of the many male partners he had during gay orgies. After finding out, Margaret breaks off contact with him and he bitterly tries to sabotage her career by paying hecklers to ruin her shows in revenge. In trying to escape this, Margaret soon has an unlikely experience in the Chinese protests leading up to the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Where she is reunited with a ethnically Tibetan man that she had begun to fall in love with during her exile. This character is really important in the novel but less so for the focus here.
This is a long book and there is plenty I have missed including a marriage, a divorce, a famous opera singer, a Hong Kong martial artist and a horny British English teacher. There are plenty of other characters that come and go as well. The novel ends somewhat hopeful with William being cared for in his last days by Margaret and both forgiving each other. William’s humanity seems to come back in his last days as he slowly and painfully expires. Margaret meanwhile has a lot to live for with a baby and hope for the future.
After finishing the novel, there was so much to think about. It is full of Chinese culture and is peppered with folktales, poetry and aphorisms. A favourite of the latter was “Heaven is high, the emperor far away”. I also liked the saying for saying for being careful about being politically correct as “feet drawn on the snake.” There is so much of China in here that at times the novel felt entirely alien even during the large portions set in the United States.
Even with so much of interest, I couldn’t stop thinking about William. What happened to him really bothers me. It makes me wonder if a character who goes through such things should be written about. As I stated before, people really do suffer like him and much worse. I have to wonder (and I may have to ask), if Mr. Derbyshire was conscious of what his character had become. If he intentionally saw where these experiences would take him and continued on regardless. I have never written a novel or even a short story. I’ve only started a few so I have never had the experience of following my characters to the end.
I have been thinking about this for a few months and it has continued to haunt me. Due to the inclusion of some of the worst aspects of the human experience, I would give would be readers caution. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it a teenager or even a young adult. Mr. Derbyshire has created strikingly realistic characters that are genuinely transformed by their experiences. I think a major reason why I was so troubled is because of this. It is humanity at its worst, at its best. Both comedies and tragedies end differently but they both end with order restored or with things how they should be. Fire from the Sun ends in both tragedy and hope for the future.