Books

Sonia Orchard
Into the Fire

Into the Fire may sound like a thriller or a lurid true-crime story. But while Sonia Orchard’s novel features a death and a mystery, it is, at heart, more of a tale of the ups and downs of female friendship than a whodunit.

One year ago Alice perished in a fire and Lara, her best friend, is driving to the bush property where she died. Question marks hover over whether the volatile and capricious Alice started the fire herself. Lara, racked with guilt, wants to make amends with Alice’s widower, Crow, and their three young children.

In the hot and humid countryside of Victoria, Lara muses over the past, searching for signs of her friend’s increasingly fragile mental health and questioning how much she, or the charismatic but controlling Crow, an almost famous rock star, is to blame.

As in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, much of the book’s tension comes from the changing dynamics of the central friendship. In flashback, we find Lara, like Lenu, the narrator in Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, at first in awe of her brighter, sparkier, more original counterpart. As the years wear by, however, it is Lara, not Alice, who emerges as the stronger, more capable one.

Woven into the narrative is the question of betrayal: the two women betray each other but also feel that society has betrayed them. Lara and Alice met as idealistic undergraduates studying feminism in Melbourne. They drink beer, party, debate ferociously and rage against the patriarchy. Drunk on the brilliance of their own precociousness, Lara believes that “we were the women who would have it all”.

It is an empty promise. Lara chooses a career, and years of travel in Europe, before panicking in her mid-30s that she will never have a child. Alice falls pregnant to Crow, with his “limp black hair, watery blue eyes and a wry smile”, only to find herself a stay-at-home wife and mother. Obsessive love soon turns into domestic drudgery as she is left running the home while Crow continues to party. Neither woman, ultimately, gets it right and both pay the consequences.

Into the Fire’s honesty in looking at often ugly behaviour, and its ability to knuckle down into the core of its characters’ complexities, make it hard to put down. As for Lara, in the end, the fire becomes an illumination – shining a light on the mistakes she has made – even if it is an illumination that comes too late.

Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore

Affirm, 288pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 9, 2019 as "Sonia Orchard, Into the Fire". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore