Our third selection in the ‘Upcoming Penguin Releases’ series is Erin Kelly’s The Burning Air. A psychological thriller set in Devon, a region southwest of London, the novel follows a dark secret that follows the Macbride family. Every year, the family departs from their homes in the city to Far Barn, a rural farm where they grew up. The area is quaint, quiet, and desolate – perfect for a crime and clean get away. While the family meetings are usually joyous, this year everyone is marred by sadness due to the passing of the family matriarch, Lydia Macbride. Sophie, Tara, and Felix, the children of the family, their spouses, as well as Rowan, their father, can not help but feel the chagrin in the air. Although this does not stop Felix from bringing his new girlfriend, Kerry, to Old Barn. Strange, but stunning, the new woman in their youngest brother’s life throws Sophie and Tara for a loop, especially since she does not seem to speak a word after arriving.
Despite the uneasiness, the Macbrides do their best to get along with the newcomer. Though after Lydia Macbride’s sweaters – a keepsake the family wanted to keep – end up burning in the family bonfire, Kerry is blamed by Sophia. Distraught but level-headed, the rest of the family cannot believe Kerry would do such a heartless act, thus her guilt is not put into question and the incident is deemed an accident. In an effort to get their sister out of the house, the family convinces Sophie to attend the county festival, and leave her baby daughter with Kerry. Little did she know the baby and Kerry would be missing when they returned.
What makes The Burning Air so seductively suspenseful is the vivid prose from the author. Kelly is keenly aware of the importance of setting, as shown by the frightfully descriptive passages in each location. This is most discernable in the author’s choice of switching character perspective, which, even in landscapes the narrative has encountered prior, seem like new encounters thanks to portrayal. While some of these passages may seem overwrought with detail, readers are not required to stretch their imagination for the scene:
“The road thinned to a one-track lane as they began the descent into the valley and dipped so steeply the children’s ears popped. As they came within a mile of the barn, the hedgerows themselves seemed to sequeeze their oversized car along the road like a clot through a vein. Branches jabbed witchy fingers through the windows, making the boys scream with something between terror and laughter and Edie echo their sounds. The signpost for Far Barn, white paint on a black wooden plaque, had faded into illegibility but new visitors were rare. Will made the right turn into the rutted track that connected their land to the rest of the world.”
The Burning Air is a mystery without being mysterious. As mentioned above, the prose leaves readers with a clear idea of the setting; yet the quick summery of character history is also a welcome attribute. Dealing with a large cast – The Macbrides, their spouses, the villian, and memorable supporting players – individual history must be concise and to the point. While some characters do take time to develop, as dictated necessary by the narrative, others are wonderfully consolidated. Such stylistic choice can hamper characters by making them typical, but Kelly proves the device sets a tone as well as give reason for character action:
“‘I think it might be starting again, Mum,’ Sophie said to the urn, almost laughing because if talking to a pot of carbon dust didn’t signify that all was not well, what did? ‘What should I do? What would you do?’ The answer was as clear as if Lydia had spoken: she would have turned to her husband, as she always did. Sophie saw with piercing clarity that if she was going to survive this, if it was happening again and she was not going to be consumed by it, she needed Will on her side. They might not have the unassailable marriage of her parents, but neither was it irretrievably broken, not yet. The children were already aware of the frost between their parents, and Toby and Leo were old enough to remember what Sophie had been like last time. She could not do this to them again. Perhaps the real purpose of this weekend was not to heal the family that had made her but to save the one she had created. “
The Burning Air relies on four different perspectives to tell the story. Much like the tetrad of character books in Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, Kelly packs a similar idea in just over 300 pages. Though the structure has been utilized before, the novel breaths fresh air. The author exhibits her ability to pull the strings of the narrative, tempting readers to the edge of their seat only to suddenly switch character. In these chapters, there is an obvious amount of information about the current narrator, but the peripheral characters share equal importance.:
“I can’t remember precisely when it became clear that the pupil had surpassed the teachers, that my education had stalled. My mother was straining at the limits of her stored knowledge. We had exhausted the literature and history she knew: before she could teach me further she had to crib it herself. Kenneth’s lessons too had been repetitive for years and we were now reduced to the study of the algorithm he was working on to predict the numbers under the latex coating on lottery scratch cards. I could not suppress the unfaithful thought that one reason Mother had been so anxious for me to gain entry to the Cath was not my advancement in the world but an awareness of the limitations of my little tutor-family.”
Be it from the voice of a madman or not, there are worthy witticisms in The Burning Air. A guaranteed way to ensnare audience, Kelly proves her personal beliefs are much more than dime-store philosophy. The anecdotes and tid-bits only court our trust in the author – giving readers the impulse to purchase other novels with their name on it. Whether the mouthpiece is vile or not, the maxims are worth considering:
The Burning Air is a smart and, most importantly, a satisfying suspense novel. Kelly proves to be an interesting author throughout the pages. As a journalist, the author has written for such publications as The Sunday Times & The Daily Mail and magazines like Marie Clair & Elle. Also a new mother – which, consequently enough, coincided with her first publication – Kelly continues to write on women’s issues and parenting. With her previous two novels centering on familial ties like The Burning Air, the author derives less from personal experience and more from interactions:
“I’ve always been fascinated by that kind of fractured bohemian family. Until I went to university, I didn’t meet anyone who was middleclass, solid. We didn’t really know writers or artists growing up, so I was always fascinated by the kind of warped confidence those kids seemed to have.”
These fractured characters are certainly within the novel, as none of them live the idyllically. Each cast member reads fleshed out in reality. Though only an observer of middle class Kelly finds so interesting, it is obvious through the characters, prose, and vivid detail her perception is not mistaken.