Technically, Irène Némirovsky's Fire in the Blood doesn't fit the definition of a historical novel, as it depicts the period when it was written, or at most a few years beforehand. However, it never got the chance to be read as a contemporary work. As her biographers note in the foreword, only a fragment was known to exist until recently. Decades after the author's death at Auschwitz, two pages of the manuscript were found in a suitcase that Némirovsky's daughter Denise carried with her into hiding. The remainder, in the form of handwritten sheets, was discovered by her biographers in a French archive. Even for a work in progress (she was still completing the manuscript when she was arrested in 1942), it's a miniature masterpiece. You can read it in an afternoon, as I did. Succinct yet intense and packed with emotion, it's one of the best books I've read this year. What an excellent writer she was.
The scene opens in a village in rural Burgundy in the 1930s as Sylvestre, a middle-aged bachelor, looks back on his life. A prodigal son who spent his younger years traveling the world and spending his inheritance, he lives alone in a large, drafty farmhouse, keeping occasional company with his cousin Hélène and her family. He tells stories of his restless youth to Hélène's daughter Colette, a young woman soon to be married. But despite his affection for his cousins, he writes of finding the greatest satisfaction in a quiet evening in front of a crackling fire with his pipe, dog, and a bottle of red wine.
In this part of central France, families have resided on the same plots for generations, and this insularity emerges in their personalities. "Everyone lives in his own house, on his own land, distrusts his neighbours, harvests his wheat, counts his money, and doesn't give a thought to the rest of the world," Sylvestre says. These people work hard and aim to achieve contentment, a feeling they call happiness, seeing little distinction between the two.
Brilliant at evoking a sense of place — one can easily picture the pastoral beauty of Burgundy as the seasons change — Némirovsky applies the same sharp-eyed insight to her characters. Tension builds as the unexpected death of a newlywed throws the idyllic little village into turmoil. One person's determination to reveal the truth about the young man's demise brings long-suppressed feelings bubbling to the surface, along with revelations of illicit affairs, dark secrets, and unspoken regrets.
The overexposed cover photo of a rural couple, shown as if they've spent too long in the sun, perfectly fits the novel's themes. Which is one's true self, Sylvestre wonders, the "fire in the blood" that burns out quickly, or the serenity gained after youthful passions fade? The novel's pacing is marvelous, with successive layers of the plot uncovered little by little. The dust jacket calls it a "morality tale with doubtful morals," and I love that incongruity about it.
On the strength of this book, I have the rest of Némirovsky's novels (those translated into English, anyway) on order. Her English translator is Sandra Smith. Fire in the Blood was published by Chatto & Windus (UK) in 2007, and Knopf (US) in 2008.