In her splendidly engrossing and poignant novel, The Sound of Fire, Renée Belliveau recalls a true event that brought tragedy to a small town in the Maritimes. In December 1941, with WWII spreading devastation across Europe and fear across the rest of the world, a fire gutted the men’s residence at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. Many were injured. Four young men died.
The fire started in the early morning hours in the basement of the 40-year-old four-storey structure and rapidly spread upwards to engulf the entire building. With the end of term looming, students were in party mode, blowing off steam, getting ready to head home for Christmas break. As they awoke to noise and panic, some, groggy from the effects of the previous night’s drinking binge, were slow to grasp what was happening. Others, unable to find a passage to safety, were forced back into their rooms. None were prepared for a life-threatening emergency. In the first minutes after the alarm was sounded, as the stairwells and hallways filled with smoke and the flames gathered strength, confusion reigned.
The first third or so of the novel graphically depicts the night of the fire, describing in urgent and harrowing terms the struggle of students to escape the inferno and the reactions of onlookers and those who answered the call for help. The rest of the novel explores the tragedy’s aftermath: its impact on the town and the effect it had on individual lives. In the immediate wake of the fire, people are too shocked to do anything but respond to the needs of the injured and those left without shelter, clothing and food. But in the weeks that follow, the response of the community extends beyond practical needs. For those wishing to alleviate the pain and loss that the tragedy has caused, it becomes a humanitarian enterprise, an act of love and caring. Others, watching from the sidelines, speculate on causes, cast blame, spread rumours, raise suspicions, but offer little of use.
Belliveau has constructed her novel around two central pillars: a vividly imagined historical setting and a solid core of diverse human emotion. By telling the story from multiple perspectives she poses a huge challenge to herself as a novelist: bringing more than a dozen characters to life by endowing each with a rich personal history. Belliveau draws her sizable cast from among the students and staff of the university—survivors of the fire, administrators, witnesses—and the people who inhabit the town and view the event through a more distant and objective lens. If The Sound of Fire were a film, it would be described as an ensemble piece. Indeed, the novel is cinematic in its scope and structure, the story delivered in terse fragments, revealed in sharp and soft focus and from an exhilarating variety of angles.
The Sound of Fire moves briskly but leaves a deep and lasting impression. It is a polished work of great empathy and a remarkable feat of imaginative reconstruction. With this, her first novel, Renee Belliveau shows she is a writer to watch.
A Miramichi Reader “Best Fiction of 2021” choice!
Renée Belliveau is a writer and archivist who gladly spends her days surrounded by records from the past. She holds a BA from Mount Allison University, an MA from the University of Waterloo, and an MI from the University of Toronto. She published her first book, Les étoiles à l’aube, at the age of seventeen. She currently lives in New Brunswick with her Nova Scotian partner but calls any shore in the Maritimes home.
- Publisher : Nimbus Publishing Limited (Sept. 9 2021)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 272 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1774710188
- ISBN-13 : 978-1774710180
Ian Colford’s short fiction has appeared in many literary publications, in print and online. His work has been shortlisted for the Thomas H. Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, the Journey Prize, the Danuta Gleed Literary Award, and others. His latest novel, The Confessions of Joseph Blanchard, was the winner of the 2022 Guernica Prize and was published by Guernica Editions in 2023. He lives in Halifax.