A BONFIRE by Pamela Hansford Johnson
Kirkus Star


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Once again--in her efficient, cloudless prose--Johnson records the flagging exuberance of simple, loving innocence within a rapidly kindling ring of deadly and perverse chance. The childhood and youth of Emma Sheldrake in the Twenties and Thirties seem to be watched over by benevolent, jaunty spirits: that ""merry man,"" her father Reggie; pretty mother Agnes, who (with her rather severe sister Issie) had once performed on the musical stage and teaches Emma to talk ""posh""; and blind, brave Grannie. But Reggie dies of a heart attack on Guy Fawkes night, just hours after he ritually stamps out the holiday bonfire (to Emma's delight); and it's on that same night Emma first hears the facts of life from an embarrassed Agnes--so death, sex, and the image of the burning Guy Fawkes effigy will ever seem bewilderingly joined. Yet death is less real than school, mates, or boy-and-girl dancing parties at home under Agnes' watchful eye--with the inevitable bread pudding and Aunt Issie's warning entrance with a clock at eleven. And later, along with a job, there's true-love Stephen: after Grannie's death, they'll marry and live with Agnes (fearful, possessive, smothering), baby Paul is born--a happy time, marred only by the newlyweds' affectionate frustration at Agnes' constant presence. . . and, more acutely, by a curious series of obscene anonymous postcards. But then, while Agnes marries generous, pleasant Mr. Winter, Stephen is killed in a car accident--so young Emma, leaving larger imperatives unexamined, follows the urgings of her lonely body, her homing instinct towards cushioning warmth, to marry seemingly secure Alan, who provides a handsome home in the suburbs. The postcards, continue, however; Alan drinks and ends up a suicide; when Emma becomes pregnant from an affair with young student Mark, she refuses marriage, soured by tragedy. And only after a miscarriage and the discovery of Mark's homosexual proclivities does Emma, now a stranger to expectation, settle for a marriage of ""tolerance and pity."" After all, as Emma sees it, ""She had not been a good girl and she had not had a happy life""; the bonfire her father had tried to trample awaited her in the end; and the tired ordinariness of evil is emphasized by the revealed identity of the postcard writer. A crystalline novel with a teasing shadow of irony--fine work from a splendid, underrated writer whose skills have not diminished one iota.

Pub Date: July 14th, 1981
Publisher: Scribners