Who by Fire

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is an international writer and journalist based in Bordeaux. His commentaries and reviews appear in the International Herald Tribune, American Spectator, thecolumnists.com and Facts & Arts, among other publications.

In the picture the reviewer Michael Johnson

Adventurous readers, myself included, make a practice of looking for talented new writers who are just waiting to be discovered. These solitary artists are often buried alive in the overcrowded publishing world, wondering if word-of-mouth will ever kick in.

Big publishers devote their efforts to searching for that lower and lower common denominator in the reading public. The smaller presses rarely go beyond printing and binding. And with few exceptions, self-publishing has not provided the promised panacea.

In the picturte Mary L. Tabor

Mary L. Tabor is not discouraged. She is an impressive and polished writer, albeit emerging late in life. Her first novel, Who By Fire (Outer Banks, $17.95), has been my big discovery of 2013. I devoured her careful prose, her complex story, her expert plotting and her well-researched digressions in two sittings.

Ms. Tabor has been at it for a long time as an essayist, a memoirist and a writing teacher at major universities. She knows what she is doing. Her first book appeared at age 60, a frank account of her life and marriage entitled (Re)Making Love: A Memoir. Her best short stories are collected in The Woman Who Never Cooked.

Her new novel represents the culmination of many years of developing the art of fiction.

Who By Fire bursts into flame on the first page with a description of a spectacular controlled barn fire in Iowa farm country. The fire theme seems to pervade the story metaphorically as characters lead their risky lives.

This is more than an urban love story. Set in Washington, D.C., It is a dissection of the pleasures and turmoil that straying spouses inevitably experience – and the deadening effect on the betrayed. Ms. Tabor takes the time to develop characters so that you care about what they are going through.

The reader begins to suspect what is to come as she drops hints like breadcrumbs along the path toward the climax. Once into the story, this book is hard to put down. The author finally kills off Lena, the woman who succumbed to her illicit lover’s charms, and she does it abruptly after setting the scene: “And then she died.”

Although Ms. Tabor is very much a woman, judging by her glamorous publicity photographs, she thinks like a man in this book. Her narrator “Robert” reconstructs the story of his life, and recalls what he had failed to see before his wife’s death:

“If I’d seen them on the street, I’d have known because they would have done the sorts of things that reveal: They would have passed between them a bottle of water, their hips would touch, as if by accident, when they walked; they wouldn’t touch with their hands the way safe lovers do.”

From the outset, you are in the thrall of a confident storyteller. Her digressions take the reader into worlds she has meticulously researched -- the detail of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the art world, the finer points of classical music, quantum physics and the business of psychology. She has her psychologist character Evan say at one point:

“I feel like an old broom—cleaning up, moving around the messes in people’s heads, never sure if that’s all I’m doing.”

I was drawn into the suspense when, for example, the lovers realize that the betrayed wife is returning home early. With stark realism, the lovers find themselves about to be discovered when they hear the key in the lock:

“A familiar sound, merely a click, but they thought, almost as if their minds were one, that they heard the separate mechanisms of the lock moving, tumbling like thunder.”I quickly turned the page to watch them awkwardly lie their way out of trouble.

I was driven to finish this book most of all by the perfect-pitch dialogue and the feel for silken prose, honed in the author’s years as a writer and a teacher of creative writing at George Washington University, in the graduate creative writing program at the University of Missouri, at Ohio State and at the Smithsonian’s Campus-on-the-Mall.

It is never too late to produce your best work, as Ms, Tabor would be the first to tell you. She is now at work on her second novel, sure to be another delight for the adventurous reader. 

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Editor's note:

There is an interview with Mary L. Tabor in the All The Thunder Magazine - click here to proceed.

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