#RivetingReviews: Rosie Goldsmith reviews THE FIRE by Daniela Krien

The beautiful and arresting artwork on the cover of The Fire depicts a woman walking on a tightrope, recalling in some ways the cover, by the same artist, of Krien’s previous novel, Love in Five Acts, which depicts a woman on the edge of a pool, poised to dive in. After the success of Love in Five Acts, expectations for this novel run high. In fact, it could easily have been titled Love in Three Acts. The structure is important: there are three sections, taking place over three weeks, exploring the relationship between a long-married couple, Rahel and Peter, as well as their careers, their children, their life choices. He’s a university professor and she is a psychotherapist. The story is told from Rahel’s point of view; her unease and despair emerging slowly. They have two grown-up children, Simon and Selma, born after the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification, never having known the restrictions or, indeed, the clarity, of life in the former GDR. Daniela Krien, born in the former East Germany, mistress of small-scale lives and big themes, has spun gold once again.

The fire of the title refers to the blaze that has burned down the holiday home Rahel and Peter were due to rent for their three-week summer holiday. Their disappointment is profound; their marriage is at a stalemate; they need to nurture what love remains. Instead, at short notice, they end up house-sitting for Rahel’s family friends, Ruth and Viktor. It’s the first summer of the Covid-19 virus, which makes the novel even more poignant as they confront their marriage, notable for its lack of fire, in the claustrophobia of the remote country house: ‘Their lively discussions have given way to a polite amicability.’ The theme of fire continues with mentions of the Second World War bombing of Dresden – their home city. 

‘In a marriage, the sum of what isn’t said far outweighs the sum of what is.’ Insights and perceptions abound in what is left unsaid and what shimmers beneath the surface. As a therapist Rahel is used to dissecting the problems of others but struggles to resolve her own. The couple have their routines and coping mechanisms – Peter’s careful preparation of food, his slow brewing of Japanese tea; Rahel’s yoga. Peter speaks little, finds meaning in books, professes to feeling alienated from the modern world of his students, of the world outside. Before 1989, Rahel and Peter were immersed in the life and ideology of the GDR, and today the consequences and remnants of that life, as well as the inequalities of East compared with West, persist in their daily lives in small but significant ways. For example, they don’t own their own home – a fact that their fiery, confrontational daughter frequently brings up, referring to the GDR generations collectively as ‘victims of reunification’. 

As with Love in Five Acts, which also deals with post-unification Germany, the novel’s protagonists are firmly anchored in politics and society. In The Fire, published in 2021 in Germany, issues of gender and identity also quietly rock the lives of Rahel and Peter. But the intensity of this spare novel, so deftly and perfectly translated by Jamie Bulloch, arises not from events – very little actually happens over the three weeks – but through the careful observation of people – recognisable people with very real problems – and how they reveal themselves in word and deed. Rahel and Peter look after the house, which she spent time in as a child. They eat, walk, swim, occasionally talk. Their children, with their own complexities, visit. 

The unshowy, meticulous pace and style perfectly match the content. Occasionally the reader may long for more sparks from this fire – some wild passion or lyrical flourishes – but the warmth, love and humanity of the novel glow for a very long time after the final page.

Reviewed by Rosie Goldsmith

THE FIRE

by Daniela Krien

Translated from German by Jamie Bulloch

Published by MacLehose Press (2023)

September 2023 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


Rosie Goldsmith is Director and Founder of the European Literature Network and Editor-in-Chief of The Riveter. She was a BBC broadcaster for twenty years and is today an arts journalist and presenter. She was chair of the judges for the EBRD Literature Prize 2018–2020.

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Category: September 2023Reviews

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