To be honest, I began this series in pursuit of material I knew I would enjoy. Eventually some writer somewhere is going to be upset with what I have to say, but not today. Robert Ford has sculpted an excellent piece of situational horror in BURNER, a textured examination of dehumanization, torture, hope, and revenge.
I picked up BURNER on the recommendation of a trusted reader friend, and I’m happy to report that I walked away sharing her enthusiasm on its achievement. Will definitely check out more of Ford’s work.
It’s terrifying how quickly everything can be taken away from you. Iris learns this agonizing lesson in the blink of an eye. Her future dreams. Her past life. Everything gone in a storm of pain. But this pain is only the beginning.
Audrey had the perfect life. Great husband, beautiful daughter, lots of money. Except her husband isn’t the man she thought he was. Her dead husband’s burner phone was bad. The Polaroids were worse. But the secrets she uncovers next set her entire world on fire.
Two women’s lives intersect because of one man’s actions. The transformation is pristine, and beautiful, and filled with pain. Sometimes the scars are on the inside.
BURNER is the tale of a man’s fatal juggle between his family and his hidden life, and just how close his parallel worlds can coexist without detection–until death severs his ability to keep the threads apart. In the case of BURNER, the threads do converge. A parallel narrative serves the accounts of twenty-five-year-old med school graduate, Iris Sanders (who is abducted and sold in a trafficking ring, thought to have been younger than she was), and housewife Audrey Dugan, who find themselves involuntarily postured in a sinister scheme orchestrated by Audrey’s husband, Paul, who dies at the hands of a stroke at the start of the novel.
At the beginning of each chapter, Ford simply labels the POV character (Iris or Audrey), as well as the timeline orientation along each characters’ respective narrative: then, and now. Within the realm of “now”, Iris and Audrey each find themselves subject to interviews with authority figures: Iris with Dr. Walker, and Audrey with Detective Blevins. In documentary style, the reader is able to examine the characters’ mannerisms and emotions during their testimonies of what led them to their respective interrogation chairs. Within the scenes of the “then” category, the voice shifts to a cinematic approach, showing the events as they occurred.
Without spoiling too much of the plot, this dichotomy of testimonies between Iris and Audrey takes the reader on an adrenaline drive from point A, the beginning, to point B, the end, with no rest stops in between, through the world of human trafficking, as well as the choices pedestrian actors must make when faced with awful, inconvenient realities–does one’s silence to evil invite culpability?
Though not mind-blowing in terms of originality (it doesn’t have to be–the purpose of the novel is to shed light on an existing evil in the world), Robert Ford has sculpted an excellent piece of hard-boiled situational horror, executed with plain language yet textured emotional insight.
A woman’s torture stands at the crux of the novel, but I didn’t detect pleasure in Ford’s descriptions. The quickness of each scene and lack of authorial intervention throughout (score) lends a sense of precise urgency to the delivery. For all the time spent describing a woman being branded with a square iron, we can recognize the physical and spiritual effect of the ordeal, and ultimate acceptance of suffering when hope fails to show its face.
Many themes struck me as I read BURNER, and I’ll list a handful of them here in lieu of ascribing them to specific scenes:
- The taking of normal life for granted when thrown into sudden adversity.
- The consequences of deciding to remain silent when privy to one’s suffering at the hands of another.
- The instinct to perpetuate suffering (including, to a large part in this novel, through revenge).
- The secrets simmering between partners (both benevolent and malevolent).
- Torture as a means of transformation, in this case large-scale burning, and the shift of impressions from those who witness the subject on either side of its evolution.
- The spontaneity of abduction and the various paths that follow.
At various points of BURNER, I expected the story to go deeper in several directions. I didn’t find myself disappointed when the story maintained its narrow path, but a part of me got curious as Ford led me from abduction, to auction, to ultimate sale of Iris as to the larger world of human trafficking. However, the administrative atmosphere created a sense of believability, from the doctor and detective interviewing Iris and Audrey to the handlers of the trafficking operation to the credit union with whom Audrey must decipher the terms of her family’s wealth following Paul’s death, and I didn’t feel further need for details with how all these issues were handled.
Movies reminiscent of BURNER in some way: Taken, Martyrs.
I don’t have much in the way of criticism for BURNER.
Conversely to my takeaway point on the novel’s scope, the lens could have been more expansive along the various points it cuts short: the larger trafficking operation, the specific purpose of each woman’s interview, and the missing link scenes between their final testimonies and their presence in their interrogation chairs. This is a mild consideration, and one that would dramatically change the energy of the novel, so not something I would recommend. But the cleaver is hungry, so I have to reach for things to consider.