Into the Fire. by Sonia Orchard. Affirm Press, 2019. Pp 288. A$29.99
“We were not the women we once were, and we were the ones who could best bear witness to that change. Sad as it was, it was easier, simply, to look away” (229)
Delicious, dark, smouldering — Sonia Orchard’s Into the Fire is an unflinching post-mortem of a once life-giving friendship, swirled with the doubts, guilt and shame that every woman under patriarchy recognises, lying alone in the belly of night.
Losing her best friend in a house fire, Lara sifts through her years of memories of Alice, driven by grief and guilt, trying desperately to figure out what she could have done differently.
Orchard’s characters hum with charisma and draw you in, but her subtle hand keeps you just the right distance from Lara, Alice, Crow and Christian to preserve their human complexities. Orchard’s skill allows you to keep flipping back and forth over the ambiguities of their moral character and actions.
The intrigue of the novel is built through these sparse psychological sketches, and echoes within the space between ourselves and others, in how little we really know about other’s lives — even the ones who love most, whom we can’t keep close enough.
I delighted in the slow burn pacing of Into the Fire as the lives of these university friends spilled out in different directions; I also liked the way the unravelled threads of Lara’s past slip in elliptically as new insights pull together for her. I felt her trepidation approaching not just the burned house, but the heart of what she knows to be true of the embers of her friendship with Alice.
I enjoyed travelling to the narrator’s 1990s Melbourne university days and seeing this version of late second-wave feminism in Australia, which other reviewers who have come before assure me looks familiar. It’s nice to get a glimpse of the world our feminist forebearers faced.
But I also recognise myself in these women entangled with the spectres of how others see them (the free young white woman abroad; the worn-down, crazy house-bound mother), who seek love in the fear of not being enough, and who feel the pressure to prove that they have more.
I remember (with pain) the double bind of a close female ex-friend who knew my insecurities and formative life events, but is now an intimate stranger to whom I just can’t admit my current failures and fears.
Lara is terrified of how motherhood will change her, and reluctant to let go of the recent freedoms feminism has won for her, even if these new choices are not what she wants. The invisible flames of society’s misogyny licks at the edges of what we know for sure in the novel: we never find out if the allusions to Alice’s mental instability is well-founded or just gaslighting.
Life forces us to make choices, sometimes before we are ready, which reveal us to ourselves; part of the deal of going our own way often involves being too proud to reveal where our real steps fell short of our ideals.
In the end, there are no easy conclusions about Lara’s life choices in her 20s, about the moments that could have brought Alice and Lara closer, and with whom the blame, guilt and responsibility should lie.
This book made me want to reach out and touch my friends, before it’s too late. The burning truth at the end blazes on your heart, and it’s what Lara has always known: that she loves Alice and should have been there more.
Orchard’s fiction leaves plenty of room for readers to breathe into, and asks pressing questions of our own relationships.
How many of us could withstand such scrutiny on how our life decisions have carried us away from those we love? What does it take to jolt us out of the stories we tell about our own pasts?
Which time, when we were pre-occupied, tired or defensive, was the last time that we really could have reached out vulnerably to a good friend to be there for it all?
Zhang Haoyi is a writer and student living in Canberra. She is currently most interested in writing essays, cultural criticism and poetry. She was one of five founding editors of Demos Journal and has learnt much from working and organising within ANU student communities. Zhang Haoyi can be contacted at email@example.com.