Before the Fire by Sarah Butler projects itself as a novel about a boy struggling with grief who falls in love with a girl during the 2011 London Riots. What Before the Fire is really about though, is a boy so overcome with anger and a stinging bitterness towards society that those around him are all left feeling alienated. Just as I felt alienated when reading the story about our main character Stick who loses his best friend in awful circumstances early on in the book and is left to navigate a world he has no desire to be in. While Stick’s loss is upsetting, Stick as a character is infuriatingly selfish, and I found my sympathy wore thin quickly. In one sequence his dad (who he hates for some unfounded reason) offers him an employment opportunity, to which he turns up his nose.
“When you two have finished organizing my life, and making out I’m too shit to do anything to do anything except sell fucking double glazing, let me know will you?” – p. 106
Having a dislikeable protagonist doesn’t have to be frustrating for the reader but Butler’s take on male chav culture through Stick is insufferable. Alongside this issue, is the abundance of details given to this story that never reach any kind of climax, making them very obvious plot devices. There’s an instance where Stick feels some very uncomfortable sexual tension with a certain character, an instance which is never referenced in any way later in the book, where is the continuity?
Before the Fire is more of an enjoyable experience when cut into individual moments that aren’t burdened by an over-arching plot that never seems to be progressing. I enjoyed Stick’s drug-addled eighteenth birthday and the family fallout which followed but within a few pages the book was back to its dreary, ordinary self. The struggles of being an adolescent boy come far darker than this, yet for all the wrong reasons, Before the Fire may be one of the most depressing interpretations of it you may ever read.