Stick and his best friend Mac live on a deprived housing estate in north Manchester. They are about to embark on a road trip to Malaga to celebrate their eighteenth birthdays. But tragedy strikes. Confined to home, Stick must navigate a far harder emotional journey of loss, raging against the world before finding solace in love. The novel is set in the months preceding the riots that swept the UK in the summer of 2011.
Before the Fire is, at first, a deceptively straightforward coming of age story. Two high-spirited, wayward, young lads are heading off on a road trip. The character/reader pay-offs are obvious: new places, new people, new experiences. Four chapters in, the proverbial rug is pulled and we’re in a different kind of story altogether: a raw and urgent portrayal of grief that reveals Butler to be a writer of great empathy and insight.
Stick simultaneously embodies and defies the label “disaffected youth”. He is portrayed as a caring, shy, even honourable young man. He cares for his OCD mum whilst grieving his younger sister’s death and parents’ subsequent divorce. He has saved up for the road trip himself – although he’s recently left his job and has little idea of what to do with his life beyond the immediate pleasures of sun, sea and sex in Malaga. Stick is a character who brushes the edges of criminality whilst remaining, essentially, a rebellious seventeen year old. The bleakness and vacuity of Stick’s situation, as well as his limited opportunities, are devastating.
The journey was the point. Because he’d never left Manchester, he’d never been anywhere, he’d never even been to the fucking seaside. And if they drove, then he’d have been to all those places, not just Manchester and Malaga, he’d have been everywhere in between.
The tightly written early chapters build a clear picture of Stick’s life and his desperate need for adventure. Close third person p.o.v encourages empathy with Stick’s world view. First person p.o.v would have felt claustrophobic.
Stick’s relationship to his environment is perfectly drawn. Animal-like, he possesses a territorial knowledge of the city streets – the repetition of which creates a growing sense of claustrophobia. The train tracks near Stick’s house remind him that he is going nowhere.
There was something about it [the city] that made him feel desperate. Like he might cry if he let himself.
The city is a sprawl of empty, derelict spaces that echo his sense of isolation and alienation. At moments of intense grief, Stick rages against the city, shouting “loud enough to echo off the houses, loud enough for them to hear it in town.” He feels most alone in crowded spaces. The city is a place to travel through. It reflects Stick’s grief and loss. As the novel progresses, Stick crumbles in a sort of Dibnher-esque demolition of heart and soul, “one minute whole, the next minute gone.”
In a world populated with well-meaning but overbearing adults, Stick’s friends become his surrogate family. His friendship with the ebullient Mac provides his greatest sense of belonging. The scene depicting their first meeting in the playground, in the aftermath of Stick’s sister’s death, is particularly moving. Butler perfectly captures Stick’s isolation from his peers and the sympathetic but ultimately ineffectual adults and teachers. Stick can’t understand why he has been picked out by Mac for this sudden and instant friendship, which is anti-establishment from the offset.
Butler has a keen eye for the telling detail which reveals character and the tone is pitch perfect throughout. Stick’s story offers an insight into what it is like to be a young man living today; to be upwardly mobile but mentally cornered. His intense physical reactions and burgeoning sexuality felt especially true to someone, “nearly, but not quite a man.” There is also a truthfulness about the father-son relationships in the book; the love-loathe tension between younger and older generations.
Before The Fire invites us to examine the cause rather than the outcome of the summer riots. The author is not condoning what happened, but rather offering a different, singular, perspective on the grand narratives created by the media at the time. For Stick, the riots are an opportunity to vent his grief and the massive injustice he feels regarding Mac’s court case. He admits, “it was easier, being angry.” Like his dad, grieving Sophie, Stick wants someone to blame for his loss. He also wants answers.
Maybe he should start a riot in Manchester – throw shit at the police, set fire to something, keep on doing it until someone fucking explained.
The juxtaposition of the riots with Stick’s first sexual relationship is arresting. Stick is as “drunk on the idea of them” [the riots] as he is the wild, raw beauty of J, his girlfriend. The last adrenaline-fuelled chapter is carnivalesque in the Bakhtinian sense. A world turned upside down. Authority overturned, if only for a while. The riots present Stick with an opportunity to purge himself of grief and rage before he can “start being alive again.”
For Stick, living is choosing to abstain from violence and vengeance. It is managing anger and making wise choices. The redeeming fire of love wins out. In J, he finds solace and freedom; the possibility of “a normal family.” The novel concludes with a sense of healing and harmony to the wider family, notably Stick’s parents. It is a satisfying, hopeful ending for Stick, one which demonstrates his growing maturity. The broader challenge posed to the reader, is how best to instill that same hope into a generation of young people? Listening to the brokenhearted (whatever their age), rather than preaching answers, seems a reasonable start.