This big buzz debut was one of the titles I featured as one of my potential highlights of the year. Jacqueline Crooks has published short stories but this semi-autobiographical work is her first full-length novel. It is also my first five star read of 2023.
This is a confident, lyrical, powerful work. The author handles tonal change very well and is able, through an involving narrative, to sustain the pull of heritage, underwater imagery and the rhythms of the often undulating, often sparse dub instrumental versions of reggae music throughout a novel rich in plot and characterisation.
We start in 1978 in Norwood, a London suburb, with three girls, Yamaye, the narrator, Asase, prickly and sassy and Rumer, a white girl from the Irish travelling community who escape underground to dances in a church crypt, “a three-pin plug, charging ourselves to dub riddim, connecting through each other to the underground” whilst tensions with police, the use of stop and search laws and the men who hit on them on the dancefloor weave a potent web.
A second section features Yamaye removed from her community, falling into a difficult lifestyle with restricted choices within a squat finding her expression in toasting over the rhythm tracks in a Bristol nightclub. Circumstances force her to Jamaica in a third part to search for her heritage and regain meaning to her life. Each section feels different and yet there is a flowing overlap which feels like it could stifle the main character at any moment as she struggles to keep her head above water. This phrase is apt as there is so much water within the images of this book from the calling from the Caribbean over the oceans, the lingering ghosts of slave ships and release from the enchainment of the seas all having a part to play.
There’s a great cast of characters, vividly drawn. The language is rich and rooted in a Black British Caribbean which feels poetic and powerful and often mystical and elusive, acknowledging a sisterhood of many previous generations, occasionally keeping meaning at arm’s length but then pulling in for a warming hug.
I really enjoyed this- from the fyah of the fierce girls dancing in the damp, smokey club to the fire of the title, the spiritual energy from a much simpler Jamaican life, there is much growth and development which kept me involved throughout. It is a very strong debut and Jacqueline Crooks deserves to make a significant impact with this.
Fire Rush will be published by Vintage/ Jonathan Cape in the UK on 2nd March 2023. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.