Liberty's Fire by Lydia Syson

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Liberty's Fire by Lydia Syson

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Category: Teens
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Julia Jones
Reviewed by Julia Jones
Summary: Vividly written novel set in Paris 1871. Recommended for teenagers and adults alike.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: May 2015
Publisher: Hot Key
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781471403675

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Paris in the uneasy and violent months between March and May 1871 is an inspired setting for this tense, dramatic novel. Liberty's Fire is Lydia Syson's third work of fiction and certainly ensures that she will not be stereotyped into any single historical period. Her much-praised debut A World Between Us was set in the Spanish Civil war and her second, That Burning Summer, on Romney Marsh in the early months of World War Two. It was when writing about the International Brigades that she came to realise the extent to which the Paris Commune retained its symbolic significance for radicals. It was still something more than a brief, bloody, failed experiment. Syson's research for Liberty's Fire was Arts Council-funded. It's impressively thorough and informed by her own fair-minded feminism. Her author's website lists her extensive array of sources.

If all this sounds a little heavy for a Young Adult novel, fear not. Liberty's Fire is essentially the story of four young people who become friends – or fall in love – during this tense, confusing time. It was a particularly shrewd authorial choice to make one of the four characters a photographer. Jules is a young American living in Paris. He was intended by his father to be making good contacts among the businessmen and bankers of the Bourse but they have fled and Jules has been able to afford to buy the stock of a ruined photographer. He is learning his craft as he explores the battered city and this makes for some excellent visual description. Liberty's Fire is a novel that would be wonderful to have in hand on a visit to Paris I was slightly sorry there was no map included.

The photographs that Jules himself most treasures are those he has taken of his lodger, Anatole, a young violinist who has come to Paris to play in the orchestra of the Théâtre Lyrique. Anatole has never been conscious of his own good-looks but Jules is, acutely. His love and suppressed passion for Anatole is movingly portrayed. He has to suppress his jealousy too, when Anatole meets first Marie, a talented young soprano who has been abandoned by her protector; then Zéphyrine, a destitute sixteen-year old from a working-class area. All four central characters are struggling to support themselves and develop their talents. Anatole has just landed a regular contract with the theatre, Marie has an understudy's role in Il Trovatore; Jules's photographs begin to gain some semi-official status. The political drama surrounding them feels more like a complication to their lives than a Cause to follow in its own right. Zéphyrine, however, meets the politically literate Rose and becomes directly involved as a communard.

More than half the novel is spent bringing these characters together, letting them begin to learn more about themselves and about each other. Syson's writing is vivid and her evocation of the background is so strong that I sometimes felt frustrated that I wanted to know more about what was going on in the wider arena. Intellectually, however, I could see that she is right to keep the focus on the individuals because one of the strengths of Liberty's Fire is showing how confusing it is to be caught up in a situation where there is so little reliable public information. No-one seems to know what is happening and this builds up a sense of diffuse threat for the reader as well as the protagonists.

The storm finally breaks on May 22nd when the Versailles troops (controlled by the enemy) re-enter Paris. This began Bloody Week when somewhere between 20,000 – 35,000 actual or suspected communards lost their lives. The writing is powerful, the events terrifying. All four young people are in real danger. Their love and their friendships are tested to the limit – and do not necessarily survive.

Another Young Adult historical novel set in France (though in the more familiar Revolution period) is Sally Gardner's The Red Necklace. This has more fantastical elements so if you prefer a good story with top-quality research I'd recommend you read anything by Imogen Robertson beginning with her first detective novel set in Georgian England, Instruments of Darkness. It contains a wide age range of characters so could work for the top end of teenage reading as well as for the adults who are its primary audience. We also have a review of Mr Peacock's Possessions by Lydia Syson.

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