As a reader, bone and sinew, I cannot review The Book on Fire by Keith Miller, this pure, uncut fix of bibliophilia. To review a book is to claim some distance from it, but having entered this story I have yet to find my way out. I am not looking. Call these words a tribute instead, borrowing liberally from its phrases, written while the spell still lingers.
“Do you love to read?” asks Balthazar, the story’s narrator. Each sentence, almost each word is an indulgence of description, a tale of all things good and bookish. It combines “in perfect quantity design and story and song”. Read it after dinner, after dessert, curled up in a blanket with a candle and tea. It has been a long time since a book has so completely taken me under its spell, childhood perhaps.
Balthazar is a book thief in a fantastical Alexandria, the legendary city with a library as its soul. In this Alexandria, children are admonished if they do not bring a book to the breakfast table. (This is not a children’s story, unless they are the sort drawn to dark fables, the sort who grow into bibliophiles.) Beggars spit on your spare change, gesturing for the paperback in your hand. There is a book store for every taste. The library itself is not easily found. Ask the merchants or shoeblacks where it might be found and they will smile or murmur an enigmatic couplet. Once found, you will not be permitted entry. It is protected by a guardian caste of librarians, trained to kill an intruder with a single blow, irresistible to a book thief.
Mysterious Zeinab hides beneath her niqab. How incorrect that niqab today, but it protects secrets. She trades her body for the price of a book. Not just any book, but one from the very special collection in Balthazar’s wardrobe. With her help, he learns the way into the library. It is more than he hoped for. “We all have titles, questions swept like sodden leaves into the corners of our minds, that we have little hope will ever be answered or solved, but that we cannot get rid of. Suddenly, I found myself in the orchard of answers.” Once inside, Balthazar is reluctant to disturb the order. Instead, he becomes entranced with the youngest librarian, Shireen (a siren indeed). Her calling demands she kill him, but she too is drawn to Balthazar’s collection. Its books spare his life one Arabian night after another.
Miller slips all too easily inside, wooing the reader through weak spots for books. Be careful. The opposite of reading is burning, and Zeinab torches Balthazar’s precious book. Why?! Balthazar seeks what all readers seek, “the beautiful, annihilating book.” The Book on Fire takes the reader to the edge. Like all addictions, paradise can suddenly turn into an inferno. Reading is a dangerous art.
See also my short tribute to Miller’s first book, The Book of Flying