A subversively compelling, multilayered novel about the profound impact of literature (perhaps negative as well as positive).
On one level, this is a book about the writing of a book, detailing the experiences that have inspired narrator Sam Pulsifer to compose a volume with the same title as this one. As a teenager, Sam took a tour of his hometown’s Emily Dickinson house. When he returned that night, he accidentally burned it down, killing two who were staying upstairs. Though Sam presents himself as an eternal innocent, doing his best to put this unfortunate incident behind him, his narrative offers the perspectives of others who suggest Sam isn’t who he appears to be, and that there’s no such thing as an accident. On another level, this is a story about stories—the stories that Sam feels sealed his fate, the stories by which we live our lives, the stories we tell ourselves. As a loving father and husband and a dutiful son following his prison sentence, Sam does his best to write his life’s story anew, yet he discovers that, in the narratives of others, arson is what defines his character. When a series of other legendary New England literary domiciles are torched, even Sam starts wondering how or whether he is involved. Rendered masterfully by Clarke (What We Won’t Do, 2001, etc.), Sam’s narrative tone is so engagingly guileless that the reader can’t help but empathize with him, even as his life begins to fall apart within the causal connections of these fires. Sam ultimately forces himself to play detective (admitting that the mystery genre is one he never read), while recognizing that he might well be the criminal he is investigating. Is Sam an unconscious arsonist? Is he the product of a dysfunctional (though decidedly bookish) family? Is someone trying to set him up? Can the reader trust Sam? Can Sam trust himself?
A serious novel that is often very funny and will be a page-turning pleasure for anyone who loves literature.