Never before have I read a book with such a mass-casting of flawed characters, exploring numerous disturbing relationships within one immensely dysfunctional family, the Dunbar family, the twins in particularly, Flora and Rory. I found Flora to be a very sympathetic character and felt that things might have turned out differently for her if not for the selfish torment of her brother, Rory. "The web of tortured relationships in my family seemed Shakespearean in its ludicrous comlexity," concludes Flora, but this book is much more than an incestuous family drama. It is about love. My absolute favorite verbal exchange between Flora and Rory is when Flora asks of Rory, "How can loving someone be wrong?" and Rory replies, "It's not the love that's wrong. It's what love makes us do." I highly recommend this enticingly complex book, an emotional avalanche indeed!
Drama. * * . A dead woman narrates her life from being a girl who lives in the shadow of her twin brother, to becoming a woman who will make decisions that will forever alter her life as well as the lives of her family.
The book opens at the funeral of Flora Dunbarâour narrator and the one who has spent her lifetime burning. (And, perhaps, her afterlife burning, depending on what you believe.) Although Flora has struggled to be good her whole life, she hasn't always been able to live according to society's standards and morals. Her problem? A forbidden love that is condemned and misunderstoodâeven by herself.
You see, Flora's love for her twin brother Rory extends beyond love for a brother. Their intense closeness as children was difficult to let go of once they were grown. Although both tried to seek out more traditional and acceptable life partnersâFlora as a pastor's wife to Hugh and Rory as a husband to Grace (a fellow musician)âthey find their need and desire for each other has morphed into something sexual. Despite trying to fight their incestuous feelings, they eventually succumb to their mutual yearnings and, in doing so, set in motion a complex chain of events that leaves every member of the Dunbar family untouched and unscathed.
Right off the bat, readers should know that this book deals candidly and graphically with the subject of incest. However, it is important to know that this incendiary topic is dealt with sensitively. You won't find anyone condemning Flora more than Flora herself. The recent publication of Mackenzie Phillips's memoir, which details her incestuous relationship with her father, makes this book all the more timely.
That being said, the topic is still an uncomfortable one. It is hard to overcome society's taboos about incest and feel empathy for these characters. Ms. Gillard does a good job of creating fully realized characters, but, even without the incest aspect, both Flora and Rory are somewhat unlikable. In fact, Flora seems to go out of her way to make herself unattractive as a form of punishment for her self-loathing. And Rory is self-involved and arrogantâwith only a few redeeming moments. A successful musician, Rory's primary concern and interest is his music and career. When this is threatened, he makes life a living hell for his familyâincluding his long-suffering wife Grace. Of all the characters, I was most taken with HughâFlora's husband. However, even Hugh has his own secrets and "forbidden" longings to deal with.
This was one of three books I've read recently about twins (the others being I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb and Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger). I think choosing to have characters be twins is an interesting choice for authors, and one that leads to unusual relationships. In fact, the specter of incest plays a small role in I Know This Much Is True, and the relationship between the twins in Her Fearful Symmetry was unusual and almost inappropriate. I suspect the idea of having two separate people who share so much is an interesting one for authors to play with. If you are a twin, where do you begin and your twin end? Are you forever connected to your twin regardless of the different lives you choose? What if one twin wants something the other doesn't? How do twins overcome their unique "world of two" when they grow up?
All of these questions are dealt with at some level in A Lifetime Burning. In many ways, I think Rory and Flora didn't know how to be apart in a healthy way. When they grow up and become sexual beings, their love and need for each other almost inevitably takes on a sexual aspectâas if it was the next natural step in their relationship. Yet this relationship causes nothing but pain for those they love and complications that even they don't foresee.
From a structural viewpoint, the book moves back and forth through time and alternates between "real-time" narration and Flora's "beyond the grave" narration. For the most part, the book follows a linear timeline, but there are moments when it did jump way back and then way forward. It helped to have Flora's posthumous thoughts in a different typeface in order to keep it straight, but I do confess to being a bit disoriented in time at various points in the book. (Part of this could be due to the fact that I was interrupted from reading it for a lengthy time in the middle.)
My Final Recommendation
This is a provocative book, and I don't think it is everyone's taste. To be honest, I'm not even sure myself how I felt about it. I didn't love it but I didn't hate it either. The writing is good, but I didn't fall in love with the characters or feel a lot of sympathy for them. I also had a hard time believing that almost no one in the Dunbar family could find someone to love outside of their own family! However, if the story overview piques your interest or an exploration of incest or "twinness" is of interest to you, this book might be an interesting read.
Note: You should know that this book is not currently available in the United States. If you are interested in obtaining a copy, your bookstore should be able to order it or you can order directly from The Book Depository (which offers free shipping on all their books worldwide).