Sunday, December 17, 2023

As If Fire Could Hide Us

by Melanie Rae Thon
(Fiction Collective 2, 2023) 

Reviewed by Michelle Donahue

Imagine, for a moment, a consciousness that senses all beings. A vibrant presence that whirls from person to bird, from a stone on the forest floor to a deer with her head craned toward the sky to feel the warmth of sun or brisk whisk of rain. Before reading Melanie Rae Thon’s As If Fire Could Hide Us, I’d thought such a feat impossible, to craft such expansive and multiplicitous perceptions on the page. But journeying through Thon’s newest book is to be immersed in the terror and unyielding beauty of the earth and all its very alive presences—wind and water, bird and girl. 

As If Fire Could Hide Us creates its expansive consciousness through three thematically entwined movements. The first and longest section, “Orelia, in hiding,” follows a twelve-year-old girl who, on impulse, runs away from home and experiences the treacherous wonder that surrounds her. In the second section, “The 7th Man,” a prison guard must rehearse for inmate executions and witnesses a particularly prolonged and horrible lethal injection. In the final movement, “The Bodies of Birds,” a girl killed by a car crash is resurrected to become many humans as her organs find homes in new bodies. In each section, characters hover on the rough, raw edge between life and death, witness the chilling thrill of living, and inhabit a place of interconnected beings, which is to say the world with all its wondrous tangles.

Just as the narratorial perspective of As If Fire Could Hide Us is expansive, so too is the book itself. It is at once multiple sorts of texts; the subtitle describes it as “a love song in three movements,” and like a song, Thon engages image and sound to generate meaning beyond mere narrative. Italicized fragments like “white horses break and rise / rise and shatter” and “thought streaks as foam / across the ocean” meander through the pages and offer fleeting moments of sensory impressions. Key moments return again and again like a haunting chorus. The book begins, “I remember birds / or the shadow of birds / hundreds of hearts / trembling through my body,” a moment that chronologically likely occurs toward the end of the first section, when Orelia finds herself suffering in a forest, wounded from what might be called an accident. This moment recurs throughout her section, when she “slept or died,” when her “memory now leaks into the earth… now becomes the forest,” and so becomes a resonant and haunting refrain.

Some might call As If Fire Could Hide Us a novel, and certainly that capacious, heteroglossic genre could contain such a text. Though the work moves beyond narrative, compelling stories lie at its heart—a girl who seeks adventure and finds companionship and violence, parents desperately looking for their missing daughter, a man reckoning with the grim realities of his job and capital punishment, a girl who has died but finds continued life. These are certainly memorable stories.

Others might call the text hybrid or experimental, as it plays with form, mixing lineated, lyric sections with paragraphs, playing with white space and grammar. In “The 7th Man,” the only punctuation marks are colons and em dashes, a choice that keeps a reader galloping forward to the piece’s grizzly end, “I wasn’t hurt—I could crawl—I could stand—left leg weak but I could walk—I could climb—find a stick to support—." There is no time for breath in such utterances, no chance for singular stillness. The punctuation too has an effect that suggests an equality between pieces: “you can’t scare me now: I am always afraid”—a suggestion that both statements are equally true, that one can’t be frightened, not ever, not now, and also: one is always frightened. 

Others might think of the book as long-form poetry given its imagistic leaps through space and perspective, a text more interested in resonances between moments than providing straightforward context. In one instance we are with Orelia: “Here I am: in the fog, in the rain, flowing under the West Seattle Bridge—” and then the next we are swung to where “raccoons run / on the roof / even now / do you hear them,” a moment that is not as easily placed chronologically or spatially. The effect is that it feels as if Orelia and the raccoons are together, that because we are given knowledge, awareness of them both, that they exist intertwined, and it doesn’t matter where the raccoons run or where Orelia hides, because, yes, even now, we can hear them, girl and raccoon, creating their spectacular sounds. Such is the power of Thon’s words, of her chosen structures and echoing voices.

With all this talk of genre, I fear I’ve fallen into a familiar human trap. A tendency As If Fire Could Hide Us resists against—to categorize, to forge separations between entities, to believe such things are meaningful or even real. In a text where a girl becomes a forest, becomes multiple humans in death, distinction isn’t very meaningful. For we live in a world of connection, of multiplicity, an ecology of consciousness, of animate and inanimate forces—stone and human, the judicial system and winged bodies. As If Fire Could Hide Us is at once all genres, an experiential rumination whose form embodies its spiritual teachings, illuminates what we too often forget—the cosmos of connection in which we exist and the ramifications of this knowledge. For to be a being intertwined with others is to be one existing forever with compassion and empathy, to be an agent whose actions unfurl onto others, for good and for evil. May we remember this as we move through our world, may you, dear reader, cherish this as you live and laugh and vote and make choices. If I haven’t convinced you of this essential, ponderous, and wonderful connectivity, Thon’s words will. As If Fire Could Hide Us is a beautifully singular read; it will change your life—don’t miss it.

Michelle Donahue is an assistant professor at UNC Wilmington, where she is associate editor of Ecotone. Her prose has been supported by the Kentucky Foundation for Women and published in Passages North, CutBank, and Arts & Letters, among others. She holds a PhD in creative writing from the University of Utah.

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