Book Review: He Knew A Firefly

cover - ebook r3 by Smita Bhattacharya

Description (from author):

“And suddenly there was a crack in the sky; large dark clouds loomed overhead. A thunderstorm was approaching. I shivered and closed my eyes in fright. For a few seconds it lasted. When I opened my eyes, the sky was light and she was gone. Only her words remained in my head, whispering, again and again in an endless loop.
Come here to me.
With her playful, happy laugh.
Slightly crazy.”

Six-year-old Akshara watches her mother die. At thirteen, she watches her best friend die. She’s heartbroken, but their deaths don’t surprise her. She has a secret ─ she can glimpse into the future of those she loves. For her it’s not a blessing, but a curse; every life she touches is thrown into turmoil, friends abandon her, and she is overwhelmed by more guilt than she can bear. Then, one day, she sees her own unhappy fate.
Does Akshara bring upon her loved ones the misfortunes they blame her for? Will Akshara be able to save herself after she has lost everyone she loved? Or will she lose her sanity like her mother did?

A gripping, evocative, and sometimes surreal page-turner, He Knew a Firefly follows Akshara as she tries to light the dark, unknown pathways for her loved ones, before being ultimately consumed by the flames herself.

Book Review: This is the first book I’ve read by an author from India (I was delighted when Ms. Bhattacharya approached me and requested I review her book), so I don’t know if my perspective is necessarily balanced. I’m approaching this novel from an American/British perspective on what novels look like, and Indian standards and expectations may be quite different.

It is definitely literary fiction. The style was a unique mix of fanciful, realistic, and fantastic, but it was adult, in focus and content. Here’s a closer look, examining the Narration, Content, Characters, Artwork, World Building, and Overall Response.

Narration: 4 out of 5. The writing was very good, even if it didn’t always make sense (due to the fanciful, mystical quality of the plot, there were times that I wasn’t quite sure exactly what had or hadn’t truly happened). The description was a unique mix of poetry and prose, realism and surrealism, and it added to the overall effect.

Content: 4 out of 5. There was a tasteful, though somewhat detailed, sexual encounter early in the book, and a description of a school shooting (which, though it happened in the United States, seemed rather “Indian” in motivation: the boy was pushed towards his actions by his father’s abandonment and his being, more than likely, an illegitimate child, even though paternity is not generally held as important in the United States, where many children are raised by single parents, foster parents, or adopted parents).

Still, the focus overall was on relationships and love, what matters and what doesn’t. However, the description made me expect more resolution about Akshara, by the end, and I also expected her to be the main character. Instead, we spent a great deal of time dealing with Miriam, Vedant, Arvind, and Olivier, as they all moved through a world that was part modern, part mystical: dreams and visions mixed with reality and memories.

It made for a rather odd novel, and I didn’t feel like the description prepared me for it. It took me a long time to understand who some of the characters were (like Arvind: I wasn’t sure if this was a male or female character until we finally got a scene where he was present), and the places didn’t feel real. (Of course, these places might genuinely resemble their in-novel descriptions, but at one point, when the setting was portions of the United States that I have visited, it still felt like we were in India, in the imaginative, surreal landscape where we first meet the characters.)

Characters: 3 out of 5. The characters fit the book, but like the rest of the book, they didn’t feel real. They felt more like archetypes or ideas of people, with a mystical overlay. Akshara was magic and life; Vedant was desire and yet responsibility. Arvind was greed, desire, and power, Miriam was art and love, and Olivier was pain, happiness, and uncertainty. The mix made for a mosiac of feelings and relationships, but it didn’t feel like any of these people were actually real, like you could meet them or have them walk through your front door.

Again, this may have been the desired effect, and if so, it would deserve a far higher rating, but as a novel–even a literary novel–I found the characters a bit too swirly, as it were, made up of their component parts without ever being real, tangible people (a bit like the woman in the cover).

Artwork: Subjective. I thought the cover was gorgeous, and it really fit the story. The title made me think that we’d spend a bit more time understanding how Akshara was a firefly, and who it was that was the “he” mentioned in the title–that somehow, she would light up someone’s life before her light went out and “summer ended”–but overall, I felt the two worked together to somewhat prepare you for the mystical story inside.

World-Building: 3 out of 5. The world was consistent, and yet it didn’t feel like a real world, unless one counts the worlds of dreams, where things don’t always make sense or ascribe to a particular set of physics. By the end, we still don’t really know why Akshara has these dreams, or where they come from, or what she’s “supposed” to do with them. We don’t understand why Akshara has to make the relationship choices she does–why she can’t seem to remain with anyone, even when she cares about them, when it doesn’t seem to stop the dreams one way or the other–and what her future will hold. Or, for that matter, what anyone else’s future will hold. We’re left with the overall feeling that life is a blur of confusing details, a riddle that can never be solved (which, again, if that’s the goal, was very effective, but not very novel-like).

Overall Response: 14 out of 20, for a total of 3.5. The book was unique: very consistent, but more like a dream, good or bad, than a novel. To me, a novel tells a story about someone’s encounter (or journey or fight) with someone or something, and their decision as a result, even if that decision is to do nothing and change nothing.

And, while there was some decision in this book, it felt like everything just ran its course, that the characters really had no agency at all and were just being dragged along to their ultimate fates, despite themselves and their attempts to make a different choice.  The description prepared me for a very different novel–the suggestion that Akshara would be consumed by the flames and lose all those she loved suggested that she’d have this great, dramatic moment of decision, where the “evil forces” of her gift would have to be confronted and a choice made. Instead, we just drifted along towards the climax in a swirl of emotions, characters, actions, and dreams, without any defining moments.

Still, it was well-written and had a magical quality to it, even it it was fatalistic in its overall tone, and I enjoyed seeing what a good writer could do with the novel-medium when the goal is quite different from what I’m used to. I’d recommend it to those who prefer the surreal and the mystical, and who can handle a fairly ambiguous ending. 🙂

Copyright 2016 Andrea Lundgren

Cover courtesy of Smita Bhattacharya

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