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Review: The Light of the Fireflies by Paul Pen

A baby boy is born in the darkness of a basement. As he grows up, he learns that there was a horrific fire that left his grandmother, parents, and older brother and sister scarred and disfigured for life. His sister’s injuries are so grotesque that she has been forced to wear a mask. His grandmother lost her eye-sight. His brother has developmental disabilities that render him as a bit of a clumsy, child-like beast. His parents have scarred, twisted faces, which the boy touches gently and tenderly, never imagining that they are anything but normal.

The boy is told that the outside world is a cruel, dangerous one, and that everything he needs is in the basement. When the boy asks about the door at the top of the stairs, his father encourages him to leave, but the boy decides he does have everything he needs and wants, and he stays. After all, it is important for a family to stay together. Thus, he grows up in this basement, fascinated by the one beam of light that leaks in from the ceiling and by his insect books. Then, one day soon after his sister gives birth to a baby boy, fireflies begin appearing in the basement.

The fireflies change everything.

Amongst the dimly-lit rooms of the basement, dark family secrets threaten to disrupt the comfortable life the family has built for themselves. Who is the father of his nephew? What or who exactly is behind his sister’s mask? Does the Cricket Man, who visits homes to snatch up bad little boys, really exist? Who is The One Upstairs, and why does his family leave a plate untouched at every meal? Is it wrong to want to see the outside world where his beloved insects exist; where the light comes from? What happened to cause the fire that left the family locked in a basement for 11 years?

What do you see when light penetrates darkness?

The Light of the Fireflies, written by Paul Pen and translated from Spanish by Simon Bruni, is, above all, distressing and unsettling. What begins as a tragic story of a family that only wants to stay together, eventually takes a sinister turn that will leave you rigid with suspense and disbelief.

Paul Pen is a talented writer – there’s no question about it. Reading his descriptions, I can smell the mother’s carrot soup cooking on the stove and the chalky smell of the grandmother’s talcum powder. I can see the slants and curves of shadows in the basement, and feel the weight of the family’s tragedy all around me. The way he describes the whistle of the mother’s nose when she breathes is gloriously creepy. I could almost picture the family’s disfigured faces, and that is quite a feat, considering that Paul made the decision to dehumanize the characters by leaving them nameless, only referring to them as “son,” “mother,” “sister,” and so on.

Sometimes, this “nameless” tactic works, leaving room for the reader to grasp the overall message of the story. In this case, it serves to make the later actions of the characters even more reprehensible, and makes the message a lot less clear – if there is indeed a message at all. I see that many Spanish readers, who read this book in the original text, seemed to love it. Perhaps there was something lost in translation here, but it seems the original message was that families should do whatever it takes to be together, which was later lost amongst graphic depictions of child abuse, murder, and a host of poor, often shocking, decisions.

The ending, after such an intense build-up after the second half of the book, felt rushed to me. It also left me feeling incredibly disappointed, because I had hoped for a different outcome. Despite my disappointment, I begrudgingly admit that not everyone gets what they deserve in life, and that is certainly the case for the characters of this story.

The Light of the Fireflies, while well-written and the scenes expertly rendered, is not for the squeamish or faint of heart. It is a gloomy tale, with bits of hope shoved in between pages and pages of hopelessness. This leaves me torn on my feelings towards this book. I would reluctantly recommend that you give it a try if you enjoy twisted, suspenseful family dramas, but be aware that it may be unsettling for those who prefer endings where justice and goodness prevails.

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