Rachel Pollack
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Unquenchable Fire

Legend (U.K.), PB, © 1988, 390 pp, ISBN #0-09-958950-8
Reviewed August 2001

Throughout its story, Unquenchable Fire feels like a book on a mission: It paints a complex picture of an alternate Earth where magic and shamanistic spiritualism took hold of society sometime in the last millennium, and focuses intently on its main character, Jennie Mazdan. On the holiest day of the year, when one of the greatest Tellers of her age comes to speak in Jennie's adopted home of Poughkeepsie, New York (where she stayed after her husband had her marriage annulled), Jennie falls asleep and misses his Telling, but instead has a strange dream which leaves her pregnant with a magical fetus which refuses to be aborted. Justifiably angry that greater powers are using her for their own ends, Jennie's relations with her neighbors are strained, and she begins to lose faith in the beliefs and ceremonies which keep her culture going.

Unfortunately, the novel doesn't really hold up as a whole, and turns out to be one of those frustrating stories leaving you wondering, "What was the point of that?" Moreover, I kept hearing that Unquenchable Fire is supposed to be lighthearted and funny, but I found it to be heavy and a little depressing.

The book goes most horribly wrong in its periodic asides to tell fragments of stories around which Jennie's world is built: Stories of the "Founders" of the modern magic-based culture, which are parables of the most tedious order. While a few of the tales were tangentially entertaining, none of them had much of anything to do with the story, were told in an excruciatingly dry style, and diverted valuable time from the main plot. Two or three such asides might have been tolerable, but twenty or thirty were just painful.

And despite its intense feel, the book ultimately suffers from a lack of thematic focus. At its best, Fire is about Jennie's feeling of being manipulated and her desire to feel like she has some control over her life, and can make her own choices. As her whole culture is based around strict rituals, her denial of these rituals is seen by her neighbors as a rejection of their community, underscoring how much they've surrendered their lives to mindless routine. Only a few kind souls see Jennie's positive side, but they're few and far between; ultimately, Jennie's path is her own, and she's abandoned by those around her, for a variety of reasons. Her ultimate acceptance of her situation - being caught between two forces she can't affect - and her empowerment because of that acceptance is the book's highest moment.

Alas, the book has too much else going on to be content with that. For instance, there's Jennie's baby: Where did it come from? What is its purpose? Why was Jennie chosen? There are vague allusions that the baby will ultimately teach self-reliance to all of mankind, but the ending seems to undo this suggestion. The baby is essentially just a plot device, but as it's an element with a definite climax written into its very nature, there needs to be a payoff regarding it, and there never is.

But it's that last question which is most troubling: Why Jennie? Why is she special? She's a little bit different from her friends in that she believes more strongly than the rest at the beginning, she's shattered over the end of her marriage, and she's at loose ends as to what she's doing in life. But she never really gains a sense of direction, and it's not clear that her life is ever any better for her ordeal. How are things essentially different at the end of the story? Presumably Jennie's child is supposed to Change Things, but apparently that's in the future. In the end, we spend 400 pages with this woman, and although she's nice enough, I didn't see what we really got out of following this particular episode of her life.

On the plus side, Pollack's prose is polished and pleasant (other than the folkloric episodes), although, as I said, lacking in the light touch that others seem to see in it. Her painting of this alternate America is interesting, with the rituals that everyone observes, and its mixture of the magical and the modern, with automobiles alongside totemistic statues, technology alongside fervent (albeit non-Christian) prayer. It's even a little frustrating that the nuts-and-bolts of the country's actual history - rather than the mythical episodes - and how things came to be as they are. There's lots of intellectual stimulation here, but Pollack doesn't follow her alternate history through as far as I'd have liked.

Unquenchable Fire ends up just not having enough payoff to be a rewarding book. People who enjoy fantasy simply to revel in the elements of the fantastic might enjoy it, but those who demand more payoff to a story's plots and themes are likely to be disappointed.

hits since 20 August 2001.

Home Email me © 2001 Michael Rawdon (rawdon@leftfield.org) http://www.leftfield.org/~rawdon/