This post will be split into two parts, a review and an analysis. The review part will be spoiler free where the analysis will give major plot points of the story away in examination. In this way people who just wish to read a review of the novel can do so without being spoiled. Please also not that this is the ONLY warning I will put in for spoilers so be advised for them in the “Analysis” section.
Title: The Light of the Fireflies
Author: Paul Pen
Translator: Simon Bruni
Genre: Mystery, Suspense, Psychological Horror
“For his whole life, the boy has lived underground, in a basement with his parents, grandmother, sister, and brother. Before he was born, his family was disfigured by a fire. His sister wears a white mask to cover her burns.
He spends his hours with his cactus, reading his book on insects, or touching the one ray of sunlight that filters in through a crack in the ceiling. Ever since his sister had a baby, everyone’s been acting very strangely. The boy begins to wonder why they never say who the father is, about what happened before his own birth, about why they’re shut away.
A few days ago, some fireflies arrived in the basement. His grandma said, There’s no creature more amazing than one that can make its own light. That light makes the boy want to escape, to know the outside world. Problem is, all the doors are locked. And he doesn’t know how to get out.…”
Whenever I read or watch something that was translated into English, I try to remember to take that into account. Language is not only a difference in words; it is a difference in thought and culture. This book was not organized in the same way as one written in English generally would be. In the middle (and you can see this from the table of contents so it’s not a spoiler) the reason for the family’s interment is revealed. This threw me off a bit. Since I now know these reasons, it removed a lot of the surprise from the rest of the novel so I spent that hoping for the proper judgment to come.
Upon completion I couldn’t figure out what bothered me about this tale. It was haunting and compelling with words well woven to pull you in, but the end leaves much to be desired. There is a dissatisfaction in the finale that soured the story for me. There are also passages of odd description that I’m chalking up to the translation, but my real condemnation is in what the story condones. It attempts to force the reader to sympathize with the wrong people, causing a disconnect. This, too, may be due to language/cultural differences, but there are universal standards of decency that I feel Fireflies missed.
It is still spellbinding and well worth the read, which should be quick at only 338 pages, but it is a disturbing tale of lies, manipulation, cover ups, and incest, nor is the ending satisfactory for what the author presents.
Rating: 3 stars
Content Warning: Discussions of rape and incest with victim blaming.
There is an eerie and haunting mien to the entirety of Paul Pen’s novel from the first page to the last. You know something is wrong even before the sister gives birth on a table. Her younger brother knows it even as her other brother and father lurk in the shadows as the potential causes. Initially, I was certain it was her own father, but eventually figured out it was the older brother even before this is revealed. Though it is never explicitly stated, the midpoint flashback makes it abysmally obvious that her brother raped and impregnated her, while her family did nothing to prevent it. In fact the very reason the family is living beneath the earth is due to a similar, previous event.
Years before the protagonist was born, the family lived by a lighthouse. The older brother who was the only brother at the time slipped his sister’s grasp one day, climbed the lighthouse tower, and fell. Instead of informing her parents or calling an ambulance, the sister moved his unconscious body and put him to bed in hopes the injuries he suffered would heal. By the time he received medical attention, it was too late; the damage was irreversible; and the her parents never forgave their daughter for that.
A little while later, a girl in their town goes missing, but it is discovered by the family that the now mentally handicapped brother found her broken body and sexually assaulted her until she finally either succumbed to that or her other wounds. It is a horrifying moment when the brother states “We’re going to have a baby!” after dragging her corpse into his home. Only the sister, who has been neglected and resented, wants to call the authorities. Her parents and grandparents want to protect their son and grandson respectively so they hide the body in the septic tank, and afterwards the father and grandfather plan and construct a living space underground, expanding the basement in order to hide the brother there. They bully the sister into not telling, invoking the idea that one should stand by one’s family at all costs no matter what. She eventually manages to contact the dead girl’s father who comes after them so the entire family except the grandfather is forced to hide in the basement. He’ll stay above to bring them what they’ll need to survive. They force the sister down there with them so that she won’t be able to bring them to justice, but as final retaliation, she manages to inflict the horrible burns upon them leaving herself unscathed. She’s forced to wear the white mask by her father who can’t stand to see her unburned face.
The story starts in the basement, goes to this reveal after the sister shows her younger brother her face, and then back to the basement afterwards, but the younger brother was “outside” of that part of the narrative. While reading, I assumed this was the sister telling him the truth, but this was not the case. This was one of the offputting things in addition to the fact that she didn’t tell him the truth or all of it though she wants him to try to escape, find the authorities, and bring them back to the basement. I believe though that she was unsure where his loyalties would lie had she given full disclosure, since obviously the entire family would go to jail and the older brother would be institutionalized, which was the entire reason they were all hiding. It would be devastating for a child to hear that their parents and grandparents are really that horrible, which also explains why the sister lied about them being able to stay in the basement even after the authorities were called.
The boy attempts to escape, is caught, but finds out that his parents want him to leave since the grandfather is dying and they need someone to continue his work. In the end he takes his double nephew with him, his sister is severely injured by a jar being broken against her face, and he does indeed take over his grandfather’s work.
Okay… so what the actual fuck? I had to let this story marinate for a few days and then read some other reviews. I couldn’t quite articulate what was bothering, but once I knew it was so much. While I can see the family being upset at the sister for letting the older brother fall and the irresponsible aftermath, she’s still also your child. Then after the now damaged boy rapes a lost and injured girl until she succumbs, I still can’t blame the sister for what she attempted to do. In the basement, she’s neglected/abused by her parents and grandmother, raped by her brother, forced to give birth, and then murdered by her mother. All of her family members were Karma Houdinis, (unless you count being forced to live out your days in a basement as karma, which I’m on the fence about…) and her younger brother picks up the torch that the grandfather dropped.
I am more disturbed that the true victim of the story, the sister, received absolutely no justice, and the message of the book seemed to be “You stand by your family no matter what.” I think that’s utter horseshit. These people did terrible, awful things. They not only covered up a murder, but allowed the same behavior happen again, since the sister was impregnated by her brother who’d raped another woman before. In a way, she is the main character, which is obfuscated by the plot’s focus on the younger boy. Her family didn’t bother to protect her possibly because they still resented her for letting her other brother be that way. The whole thing actually sickens me as the takeaway from the tale implies that what happened to her was acceptable. She was made into the villain of the story who is “defeated,” and is seen as even more villainous as she’s dying since she stares at her mother in absolute hatred, but she (the mother) forgives her. Um, what?
The sister had every right to be pissed off and vindictive. I understand standing by your family, but she was treated like a non-member after her brother’s accident. I can’t blame her for wanting to contact the authorities and escape the basement where she was being held prisoner. Even the part where she rubbed rat poison on her breasts before suckling her baby, while not commendable in the least, could still have been an indicator of postpartum depression along with general depression caused by being imprisoned by her own family and raped by her own brother. She was the real victim of the story, and I am more than upset the author seemed to think she was the trickster/manipulator of her little brother and the temptress for her mentally damaged one. At one point the father even blames her for her rape and subsequent pregnancy.
The father is a complete monster, which the mother and grandmother are little better. This tale promises to be a beacon of hope, but really just shows how children can be manipulated to the point that even when they’re no longer under their parents’ influence, they’ll still bend to their will. The defiant daughter ends up dead, and the compliant son continues the cycle of harboring and providing for these people who are more than deserving of the justice their daughter attempted to enact.