The Long Fire By Meghan Tifft, $16.
In the opening lines of Meghan Tifft’s The Long Fire, Natalie tells us provocatively that there’s only one choice she lives by: “spit or swallow.” The truth is that Natalie suffers from pica, a psychological disorder compelling her to put inedible things in her mouth: hair curlers, pencil shavings, dashboard hula dancers. As she tries to curb her unhealthy addiction, Natalie is also learning about her recently deceased mother. A note found in her father’s things leads Natalie to search out information about her family in the gypsy community. This debut novel is ambitious in how much it tries to accomplish; though it sometimes loses focus, Natalie’s discoveries guide the reader through a seedy, unfamiliar world.
Tifft’s work centers on ideas of family secrecy and inherited identity. “I’ve heard all about what spreads behind me,” Natalie says, “a long line of crazies and quacks, people with circuits loose and chips on their shoulders, people living in the moral and mental gray, twisted but functional, not committable, delinquent, duplicitous, shameless and shifty—my other family.” While not a mystery in the traditional sense, The Long Fire is driven by questions Natalie has about her mother, who always kept her daughter at arm’s length.
Natalie’s heritage is connected to fire, in life and in death. Fire is at once passion, temptation and a new beginning. Natalie’s mother felt a youthful affair “was like a fire burning everything away, all her connection to her family and her situation, until she was empty of what she had done.” Natalie and her mother are complex, interesting characters. The fire motif is carried throughout the book, resulting in the sense that nothing is too permanent. Paralleling the unmoored lives of its gypsy characters, The Long Fire is about living free of labels or traditional expectations within a family. But Tifft makes it clear this comes at a cost.
There’s so much happening in this book: a world of crime and insurance fraud, a disappearing brother, an unexplained corpse, revelations of paternity and its protagonist’s bad relationships. At times, Natalie’s pica feels gimmicky or secondary to the story.
The Long Fire works best when it stays close to the mystery surrounding Natalie’s mom and allows its main character to experience revelations about her own character. It’s a solid debut effort that won’t leave a bad taste in your mouth.