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The Light of the Fireflies Paperback – April 1, 2016
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About the Author
Paul Pen is an author, journalist, and scriptwriter. In 2014, he won the Gonzoo Prize for author of the year from Spanish newspaper 20 minutos, awarded by popular vote. His first novel, The Warning, also earned him the title of Fnac New Talent in 2011 and has been translated into German and Italian. Pen’s short stories include a digital-format collection of suspenseful tales titled Thirteen Stories. The Light of the Fireflies is his second novel and is available in English for the first time.
About the Translator
Simon Bruni is a translator of fiction and nonfiction from Spanish, a language he acquired through “total immersion” living in Alicante, Valencia, and Santander. He studied Spanish and linguistics at Queen Mary University of London and literary translation at the University of Exeter. His literary translations include novels, short stories, and video games, while his nonfiction portfolio spans fields as diverse as journalism, social geography, early modern witchcraft, food security, and military history.
He has won two third-place prizes in the John Dryden Translation Competition: in 2015 for his translation of Paul Pen’s harrowing short story “The Porcelain Boy,” and in 2011 for Francisco Pérez Gandul’s slang-driven novel Cell 211. His translation of Paul Pen’s novel The Light of the Fireflies has sold more than a hundred thousand copies worldwide.
Simon serves on the executive committee of the Society of Authors’ Translators Association (TA) and is a member of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA). For more information, please visit www.simonbruni.com.
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First, the good: I found the premise deeply fascinating. I'm a lifelong fan of horror, especially the intimate horror of family dysfunction, and this book certainly delivers on that front. The story opens with the narrator's older sister giving birth, which immediately sets up a sense of dissonance between the narrator's blithe acceptance of what is, to him, a perfectly normal life - he is, after all, ten years old and doesn't understand how pregnancy happens - and the reader's horror and disgust at knowing that, since the sister isn't allowed to leave and no one else is allowed in, her baby must have been conceived through incestuous rape.
Using a young boy who was born into this situation and has never known anything else allows the writer to create many instances of this dissonance and thus subtly weave a truly horrifying atmosphere. The narrator accepts every aspect of his life as normal, and shows us many things that we, as adult readers, understand to be wrong, while he has no idea what's going on. Similarly to his sister's pregnancy, we are told that his older brother routinely masturbates in the bed above his in their shared room, except that the narrator doesn't understand that's what his brother is doing. We do, however.
The abuse dynamics among the family are quite believable as well. The sister is the family scapegoat, blamed for all that has befallen them - despite it having been the parents' choice to cloister themselves away - and punished much more severely than any of her siblings. The father is controlling and harsh. The children are pitted against each other to keep them from becoming allies against their controlling, abusive parents.
As time goes on, the family's secrets come to light, and this is where the bad begins. Years ago, the older sister accidentally caused her brother to suffer a severe head injury from falling down the stairs, and then covered up what had happened rather than getting him immediate medical help. Because of this mistake - a terrible mistake to have made, certainly - she is held responsible for everything else that happens. She is extravagantly punished and regarded by both her parents and the narrative itself as evil. Throughout the story, she is presented not as a young woman who made a terrible mistake as a child and has since suffered ongoing sexual and emotional abuse as a punishment for that mistake, who is justifiably angry with her abusers and who is trying to escape, but as a malicious, manipulative, hateful person. The narrative itself oozes with contempt for her.
The book's treatment of the disabled brother is grotesque.
Much attention is paid to his sexuality, and that sexuality is presented exclusively as disgusting, violent, and animalistic. At one point, in the backstory portion of the book, a girl in the town goes missing; it is later discovered that the disabled brother found her washed up on the shore and continuously raped her while she was dying and then after she was dead, because he was simply too disabled to understand that she was hurt or needed help or that it was wrong to rape her. As I mentioned earlier, he publicly masturbates above the narrator in bed, and it is implied he doesn't understand he shouldn't do this. The sister tries to manipulate the narrator into believing their father impregnated her and continues to abuse her, but it's revealed that it's actually the disabled brother who has been abusing her. (This is treated as another hateful act on the part of the sister; no attention is given to the fact that while her father might not have raped her himself, he allowed her brother to rape and impregnate her.)
'Animalistic' describes the disabled brother to a T. He is not treated as a person, but rather as a beast in the body of a human. He doesn't have a personality aside from the stereotypes the author believes of mentally disabled people. He doesn't have a role in the story except to be disgusting and offputting. His disability is explicitly linked to his various sexual offences, making it quite clear that the author himself must believe that the mentally disabled are beasts ruled entirely by their urges and lack even the ability to understand right or wrong on any level.
The treatment of the older sister is similarly grotesque. As I mentioned before, there is no sympathy extended to her by the narrative for the abuse she has suffered. She's presented as cold and hatefully manipulative, delighting in the downfall of her family, but even when we as the readers fully understand why that is, the narrative still frames her actions as wrong and her motivations as evil. More sympathy and care are given to the child she was forced to birth, not to mention the brother whose abuse impregnated her, than to her.
Ultimately, everyone in the book dies except for the narrator and his infant brother-nephew. It is a terribly unsatisfying ending, and a clear demonstration that the narrative values the life of this infant - borne of incestuous rape - over the life of the young woman who was abused to bring him into the world.
The concept of this book was interesting, and some aspects of it were well executed. However, the treatment of the sister was nothing short of grossly misogynistic, the treatment of the disabled brother made it clear the author views the mentally disabled as subhuman, and the constant refrain of sexual abuse and assault felt less like an attempt to address the sickening reality of this type of abuse and its effect on families and more like sheer voyeurism. The victim of the abuse was presented as hateful and deserving of it, the perpetrator as an animal who didn't even understand what he was doing.
All in all, months after I read this book, I am still disgusted by it. Not only are such portrayals of abuse and disability deeply offensive, they're also just lazy. It's clear the author didn't care to do any research and simply relied on tired stereotypes. The sheer contempt for both women and the disabled that oozes from this book made reading it as a disabled woman a hugely unpleasant experience. I would give this zero stars if I could, and I will never read another work by this author.
The boy was born in the basement and has never left its confines; believing the stories his family tells him about the world beyond being a dangerous place that will cause him immense pain as though covered in thousands of blisters, he is happy to stay in his basement home. He learns of the world from books and television and is content with his life until things intensify within his family -- his sister gives birth to a baby that can only be the product of incest, and the boy begins to question everything about his world. He comes to be suspect of everything his parents tell him and fixated on noises he sometimes hears from above and believes them to emanate from a bogeyman he calls "The Cricket Man." (The boy fails to make the connection between the noises and the sudden appearance of supplies: food, vitamins, and other goods.) After some time, his sister begins to speak secretly with the boy, revealing many dark and disturbing secrets about the family, and together, they formulate a plan.
The first half of this book is a riveting read and reminded me a bit of Room by Emma Donoughe, only this family willingly lives in the basement of their own accord with the exception of the boy's older sister, who is treated as the family pariah. After 100 pages, I was anxious to learn of how it came to be that this family lives in their basement refuge. This is where the first major disappointment of the book arises.
When the events that took place 11 years prior were finally revealed, I was disappointed not only by the story but by the writing. I found myself unsympathetic to the family and their predicament. It's not just that the events were unbelievable, I also found the dialogue and action to be unnecessarily long. I skimmed through most of this part and read just enough to glean the facts about what happened. I think at this point in the novel, I was so sympathetic to the sister that I just couldn't understand the family's choices or believe the reasons for hatred of the girl to be justified. In fact, apart from the boy and the baby, I think the girl is the only likable character and the most sympathetic of them all. In this section, I found that Pen endeavored to manipulate our sympathy for the family and to arrive at their same collective consensus that the daughter was the catalyst for all of their trouble. If this part of the story had come sooner, I probably would have stopped reading, but I kept reading because after slogging through the first half of the book, I was curious to see how it would end. As anticipated, it was a disappointing if not predictable ending, especially for the sister.
That said, the book managed to hold my attention and kept me engaged enough to see it through. My issue is primarily with the overarching sexist elevation of boy's lives over girl's, and the grotesque treatment of all the children. The daughter was portrayed as the object of all blame and thusly deserving of all punishments and humiliations she endured. The family is obviously a deeply dysfunctional one, and while their intentions may have been good, I just couldn't sympathize or realistically believe any of their motivations. The book really lost me when the parents explain the reasoning behind their treatment of the boy in order to manipulate him into protecting their secrets.
Overall, it is a readable book with enough to keep the reader's attention, but the conclusion and the story of the family's previous life felt cobbled together as an afterthought. I had imagined a dozen scenarios of the hows and whys -- an apocalyptic scenario that left the earth above scorched and uninhabitable? Or perhaps there might be some political reason -- maybe they were escaping wartime horrors above ground or fleeing persecution? Or perhaps the father is part of some sort of survivalist cult and has coerced his family into living in the basement? Maybe he feared atomic fallout, like Christopher Walken in Blast from the Past? Nope. The anticipation for the answer perhaps does a disservice to the novel because as a reader I came to care about our nameless narrator and as eager for answers as he is. The suspense is so great and we are so invested by the time we find out, that it's anticlimactic. As aforementioned, I found the resolution dissatisfying. There is no justice in this novel, unless you accept the condemnation of the sister as valid, and then perhaps one can view her fate as justice. Which I don't.