In the late ’90s, detailed in a deftly woven flashback tapestry, the MacBride family encounters Darcy Kellaway, whose life “read like a synopsis for Dickens.” The MacBrides --- elite private school headmaster Rowan and magistrate Lydia, and their teen progeny, Sophie, Tara and Felix --- lead privileged lives in Saxby, England.
Impoverished but brilliant Darcy, whom Tara and Felix mock as having rodent-like features, is a scholarship contender at Rowan’s posh Cathedral Academy, but doesn’t make the final cut. It goes to an unnamed musical prodigy Darcy thinks is Felix. Darcy perceives that Felix stole the education from him and wages a vendetta against the MacBrides, breaking into their home to learn secrets and enact malice against them, especially the younger MacBrides. Stalking them, he runs amuck with police and winds up in a psych ward after making credible threats against judge Lydia, who has documented in private diaries her omertà about a crime for which she accuses Darcy.
"If you read only one book this year, make it THE BURNING AIR, which is likely to earn Kelly a Pulitzer nomination."
Conniving to earn a release, Darcy turns the need for consummate vengeance into entrepreneurial endeavors, amassing enough to give countless “Cath” scholarships to disadvantaged youth, but that’s not what happens: “My desire for revenge did not dim. The prospect of retribution seemed as remote as passing through the solid stone of the old city walls.” The only thing Darcy creates is his ironic undoing. Lesson learned: vindictive actions come back to bite.
Shifting points of view from Lydia’s narrative to Darcy’s first person perspective, they dance a deadly pas de deux --- each is intent on vilifying the other. Their actions have “rippling aftershocks” of ginormous consequences, and poetic justice serves dark karma for dessert and a double dose of irony that rivals THE KITE RUNNER.
Flash forward to late 2013. The family has gathered in Devon at their country cottage dubbed “the barn” for the Tar Barrels Festival (people of dubious sobriety carrying burning tar through the streets), and to scatter Lydia’s cremains after her rapid death from systemic cancer. Rowan brings Lydia in an urn, along with enough brandy to douse his pain --- and the flaming Tar Barrels. Sophie and Will, at odds because of infidelity, bring their broad brood. Tara comes with her fatherless, mixed-race son Jake and boyfriend Matt, and Felix introduces the family to true love Kerry.
At age 29, Felix has his first girlfriend. It’s not what you think: Kerry’s “beauty ridiculed Felix’s own disfigurement.” In a vicious attack as a teen, Felix had “a glistening orifice where his right eye had been” and now hears comments like “Halloween was last week, mate.” The thing is, Kerry also has secret scars, and Matt’s paramount emotive issues dwarf Quasimodo’s physical flaws.
The MacBrides’ metaphoric bonfire ignites the air, only they use secrets darker than logs for a pyre to conceal their deeds. Their real bonfire on Guy Fawkes Day destroys Lydia’s incriminating diaries. Or does it?
Following THE POISON TREE and THE DARK ROSE, Erin Kelly’s latest literary coup d’éclat disguised as a psychological thriller ratchets up tension to equal that of a cable-stayed bridge. If you read only one book this year, make it THE BURNING AIR, which is likely to earn Kelly a Pulitzer nomination.
Reviewed by L. Dean Murphy on February 22, 2013