Book Review | The Light of the Fireflies by Paul Pen

A boy lives with his parents, brother, sister and grandmother in a basement underground. The only reprieve from the darkness and artificial electric light is an anaemic line of sunlight that feeds through the bars in one of the only windows in the basement. For his whole life, this is all the boy has known of the outside world. He is never given a name, nor are the other characters in the novel – they are known solely by their relation to the protagonist.

The rest of the family have been disfigured in a fire that we know nothing about, except for the fact that it happened before the boy was born. The sister’s disfigurement is so horrific that she wears at all times a white prosthetic mask, with three hollowed-out holes for her eyes and mouth. In all his eleven years, the boy has never seen his sister’s face. The only other connection with the outside world is the legend of the ‘cricket man’, a terrifying figure who patrols the corridors at night and is prone to taking away young children, seizing them into the sack he drags behind him.

The boy is promised by his parents that this is the best place they could possibly be – that providing that they have each other, what more could he want in the world? There’s a door to the outside world that the boy has been told is left unlocked – he could go at any time, he’s no prisoner. Only one day, he finds out that isn’t quite the truth. He tries the handle, and discovers that the door has never been able to open.

“A door loses its meaning if you don’t ever go through it. It becomes a wall.”

There are many things about this book that make it very well executed indeed. The tension is stifling, unbearable at times. The descriptions of the dank, oppressive basement – alongside images of the small touches of life, the steam rising off the carrot soup on the stove, the soft folds of the grandmother’s aged skin, the muffled sounds of the television coming through the wall – create a world that is both horrifying and yet oddly comforting.

Like many others have commented, the real issue lies in the treatment of the sister. A victim of emotional, sexual and physical abuse, she is constantly pitted as the source of all the family’s misfortunes. Their barely-disguised hatred of her turns her into a bitter, desperate young woman. I won’t give anything further away, but there isn’t a satisfying denouement to her part in the story. This deeply disturbing portrayal leads us to believe the sympathies of the author are planted elsewhere, leading to possible implications surrounding victim blaming and the downplaying of horrific abuse that I have no interest in entertaining.

We want redemption in this novel. But the one that is offered is not a comfortable one. It glosses over the horrors, it makes things all too cohesive. Ties things up far too easily. Now, I believe this is a deliberate ambiguity, and I am willing to allow for things that are lost in translation between the two languages. For one, the English blurb describes the narrative as ‘hopeful’ – something the Spanish blurb does not. There was nothing hopeful for me in this dysfunctional and disconcerting novel. I don’t necessarily believe that fiction should have a clear moral message – art imitates life (or vice versa) – and life is never quite as clear cut as we would perhaps like it to be. The resolution is not satisfying, or unequivocally right, but neither does it have to be. Life is messy and painful, and there isn’t always a redemptive happily ever after. This is nevertheless an enthralling, unsettlingly read from a talented author.

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