literary fiction
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Review: The Light of The Fireflies ~ Paul Pen

336 pages, paperback £8.99
337 pages, Kindle £1.00
AmazonCrossing 1 April 2016


A haunting and hopeful tale of discovering light in even the darkest of places.

For his whole life, the boy has lived underground, in a basement with his parents, grandmother, sister, and brother. Before he was born, his family was disfigured by a fire. His sister wears a white mask to cover her burns.

He spends his hours with his cactus, reading his book on insects, or touching the one ray of sunlight that filters in through a crack in the ceiling. Ever since his sister had a baby, everyone’s been acting very strangely. The boy begins to wonder why they never say who the father is, about what happened before his own birth, about why they’re shut away.

A few days ago, some fireflies arrived in the basement. His grandma said, There’s no creature more amazing than one that can make its own light. That light makes the boy want to escape, to know the outside world. Problem is, all the doors are locked. And he doesn’t know how to get out…


This is a little gem of a book, and I am so glad I found it!

It tells the story of a 10-year-old boy who lives seemingly imprisoned in a basement with his family, and who has never seen the outside world. All the adults — his brother and sister, his parents and his grandmother — have terrible, disfiguring burns, and his sister’s are allegedly so severe that she is made to wear a white mask at all times.

Though the basement is dark and grim, the family’s life seems far from uncomfortable, and food materialises at regular intervals though without explanation. Though the father appears to be stern and strict and forbidding, almost cruel, the little boy does not seem to have an unhappy life — but for one thing: he longs to know what is beyond the barred windows that exert such a fascination on him, and which seem to show their little box to be contained inside yet another box. Often, he can also feel a different scent in the air from all the other scents he knows in the basement, and he wonders about that too.

The story is told through the eyes of the boy, in his own voice and always from his perspective. Nobody has a name: they are simply mother, grandmother, brother, sister, father, nephew, grandfather, and each of these characters is drawn according to both the boy’s perception of reality and their interactions with the boy and with each other.

All throughout, questions keep popping up: why are they all there? Why don’t they get out? How did they get so badly burnt? Why isn’t the child equally burnt? Why do the adults seem to hate their eldest daughter so ferociously? Who delivers their supplies? And yet, nothing, from words to deeds, is ever as it seems, for no sooner than the boy comes to a conclusion or thinks he knows or understands something, he is immediately drawn into another, and another, and another possibility — and the reader with him.

Eventually, we are introduced to the reasons why the family are there in that basement, for the disfigurements, and for their behaviour, notably that of the father and of the sister. And when we get to the last few chapters and we become acquainted with the full story, we are left breathless, gasping for air. The family try to hide a crime committed by their mentally challenged middle son, and eventually find that they cannot go on as if nothing happened. For one thing, the eldest daughter will not allow it to happen. Their only possible escape is, they conclude, to lock themselves up in a basement for the rest of their lives –thus punishing themselves much more severely and irretrievably than society and its laws could possibly have done.

And the fireflies? Ah! The fireflies are a narrative metaphor, of course. It isn’t almost until the very end that we realise that there had never been any real fireflies, but simply imaginary ones that the boy captures in his jam jar, and which illustrate his desire for light — for knowledge and understanding, but also literally for the sunlight he barely perceives in the outside world — and his trajectory towards the light (meaning both enlightenment, freedom and the outside world, and a state of grace, i.e. forgiveness). As the grandma had once told him, there is no creature more amazing than one that can make its one light, and this the boy does.

It is a dark, gritty, atmospheric, psychological, often shocking but utterly compelling novel. It deals with crime and punishment, with justice and expiation, with guilt and innocence, and mostly with forgiveness. Of ourselves, and of the others around us. More importantly, it does so without moralising or passing judgements — indeed, as through the eyes of a child.

It is an excellent work of fiction, and very well written. It made me stop often and turn back a page and read again, or linger over a paragraph to read it and read and read again, savouring the word choice or the turn of phrase, the concept depicted or the idea transmitted, or the moment of personal reflection — or any combination thereof. It wasn’t until after I finished reading it, as usual, that I discovered the book was originally written in Spanish, which leaves me equally in awe of the outstanding work done by the translator Simon Bruni.

Verdict: recommended
Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥
Shelf: my favourite books

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