CITY ON FIRE – An Epic Novel

Well I finally finished this book.  Wow!  City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg is a sprawling, complex novel set in New York in the 1970s. It is pretty impressive for a debut novel but at 900+ pages it’s a bit of a marathon read and not for the faint-hearted.

It begins in December 1976 when we are introduced to some of the characters. A pivotal event occurs on New Year’s eve when a teenage girl is shot in Central Park. The book covers what happened afterwards and also what had gone before and slowly reveals the connections between the various characters in the book.  Things all come to a head on 13 July 1977 when all the lights go out in New York City.
There are a myriad of characters, many of whom are introduced in (or fall into) pairs: Charlie and Samantha, William and Mercer, Regan and Keith, Felicia Gould and her ‘Demon Brother’ Amory Gould, Richard and Jenny, Pulaski, Nicky Chaos and Solomon Grundy, Sewer Girl ….. and more.
The characters include a wealthy New York family and the two estranged heirs, a teacher recently arrived, two Long Island teenagers drawn to the New York punk scene, a re-formed punk band and the characters around them, a writer, the police officer investigating the shooting, a gallery owner…. and more.
I loved the way the author cleverly weaves the story to reveal the connections between the various characters (although they don’t realise it at the time).
I also liked the fact that the story is told from the viewpoint of individual characters.  It also jumps backwards and forwards in time.
I thought the author described the locations really well. You could imagine yourself in these places. The characters are also very well formed and I feel you really get to know them, or at least some of them.
For all its brilliance, it’s not a happy, uplifting story. It’s a bit bleak in parts. It took me longer than usual to read and I came close on a couple of occasions to giving up simply because of the sheer length of the story but then the pace would change and I engaged with it again. I’m glad I read to the end and although for some characters there is a satisfactory ending for me there were still some unresolved issues.
Even as I’m drafting this review I can’t decide how I feel about the book.  I suppose I could say it’s brilliant in parts but the sheer length of the novel could turn it into a bit of a slog.  Overall I would say I’m glad I read it.
(Thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for providing me with a review copy – the book is due to be published in the UK on 22 October 2015).
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Filed under 1970s, chaos, City on Fire, crime, epic novel, literature, New York, punk music scene

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