“Fire Flowers” is Ben Byrne’s first novel and it’s quite an impressive debut. Set in the months immediately following Japan’s surrender to the allied forces, the narrative follows four characters in the war’s immediate aftermath. There’s Hal Lynch, a former pilot and current photographer for “Stars and Stripes” who is slowly drawn to finding out the real effects of the two atomic bombs that were dropped to end the war; Satsuko Takara, a woman in her twenties who had lost her entire family in the firebombing of Tokyo and is trying to locate her missing brother; Hiroshi Takara, Satsuko’s fifteen year old brother, looking for his missing sister, trying to survive day by day with other orphaned children; and finally Osamu Maruki, a would-be writer who has just returned from the pacific islands to find his home city in ruins. He was once Satsuko’s lover, and he is on a quest to find her as well as trying to readjust to the changed landscape and American occupation.
Each of these narratives are told in the first person, with each chapter jumping between the different characters. The reader knows that eventually all the characters will eventually converge and Byrne as a knack of adding just enough suspense to keep the reader turning the pages. Each character has their own unique story and own perspective on the war and what will become of Japanese society and it’s very interesting to see the end of the war through Japanese eyes. But the crux of the novel deal’s with Hal’s quest to seek the truth behind the effects of the dropping of the two atomic bombs and though strictly ordered not to go to Hiroshima (the city is declared “off limits” to American personnel), he hops aboard a train and makes his way there anyway after hearing about the survivors of the bombing suffering from a “mysterious disease” which the Japanese doctors were calling “Disease X”. Once he gets there and sees the effects for himself, he’s determined to report the truth. However the military brass is determined to shut him down and they indeed fire him from his position at “Stars and Stripes”. Now on his own during the occupation, he eventually meets Satsuko and his meeting only complicates matters even more.
As for the rest of the characters — Satsuko, who resorts to prostitution in order to make a living, her clients being her conquerers; Hiroshi, living hand to mouth and trying to avoid being scooped up by allied forces and forced to live in an orphanage, manages to steal a camera and become a budding photographer himself; and Osamu, who is determined to put the war behind him and focus his energies on writing, falling in with a group of surviving Japanese bohemians who are looking to bring art into the modern age. It is their perspective, their outlook on what their nation had just been through which I found most interesting about this novel.
There is a lot happening here and I don’t want to give much away because it’s a wonderful story that must be experienced by the reader. For me, a great book to begin the new year. Highly recommended.