Most of you will probably remember Kathleen Donohoe, an Irish-American writer and New Yorker-and full disclosure, my cousin-from previous posts on this website. This year saw the publication of her debut novel, Ashes Of Fiery Weather. The title is taken from a poem by Wallace Stevens, Our Stars Come From Ireland, which celebrates the importance of place as a facet of memory. It’s a fitting entry point to this book, which explores how geography-both in New York City and Ireland-contours our worldview. Ashes also recognizes the importance of history, both on a collective and individual level, which-as the son of a history buff-I can appreciate. From the political impact of the Irish diaspora-including within New York’s civil service-to the way feminism has shaped traditionally masculine professions, it has a panoramic view, even as it remains a deeply personal piece of literature.
This is a multi-generational novel told from the perspective of Irish and Irish-American women whose lives are defined by the actions of the past. The choices they make-and the irrevocable consequences of these decisions-is one of the overriding themes of this novel, as is the evolution of the relationships between these women over time. Like Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, there are several time shifts involving multiple characters who are all connected through personal relationships. The complex web of intimate ties and disruptive chronology was initially daunting for me, a person who has a sieve-like memory, but I gradually embraced the intricacy of this world, which is captivating on many different levels.
There’s the domestic drama-the enduring trauma of broken relationships and lost loved ones, the persistence of family in spite of every effort made to dissolve it-but also the impact of work in shaping the lives of these characters and those who surround them. Donohoe does a remarkable job of portraying the at times cloistered nature of what is a very public vocation, the brotherhood of firefighters, while also exploring the cataclysmic events that have molded and shaped it and the city it serves. This is brilliant work of literary fiction, and can be enjoyed even if you’re not Irish, or a New Yorker, or related to one of New York’s Bravest. It’s a great first novel which plumbs the depths of grief and joy. I recommend buying it, which is very easy to do if you happen to live in New York City-or have an Internet connection.
Even if it’s too late to buy a copy as a Christmas present, there’s always 2017.