David's Reviews > Refiner's Fire

Refiner's Fire by Mark Helprin
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's review
Aug 01, 09

Mark Helprin's "Refiner's Fire" is one of the most original fictional books I have ever read. Written in a whimsical, almost magical, style, the book begins with the main character, Marshall Pearl, ailing in a Haifa Hospital, gravely wounded from an artillery shell fired near Mount Hermon in the opening salvo of the Yom Kippur War. From there, the book tells the story of his life, from being born an orphan on a refugee ship in Palestine to fighting Rastas in Jamaica and searching for the story of his father amidst the frozen crevices of Mount Chamonix.

While adventuring through the world, Marshall goes through tests small and large, each of which will help make him into a man. Although the reader begins the book knowing that there will be some point at which Marshall goes through the refiner's fire, Helprin makes the story up to that moment both full and complex. Rather than just letting the big events do the shaping, Helprin shows how a person like Marshall, naturally brave and independent, can be tested in all sorts of ways, knowingly and unknowingly, and then draw upon the results of those tests for when it really counts.

The book demands the attention of the reader and, if it is given, the reader is rewarded with a lovely, intricate tale replete with beautiful language and thoughtful observations. For instance, while in the hills of the West Bank, Helprin observes that, "It was easy to die near Jerusalem, as easy as falling in the undertow of a history which surged in tides and currents and was unknown, but left its marks like wind eroding the rock. All things conspired there on a high part of the stage upon which they had come at their risk."

At the same time, however, although the majority of the book was involving, there were stretches in which the writing was a little too dream-like and detached, a bit distracting from the plot. Had the book contained fewer cluttered sentences and focused more on the difficulties and trials that cause "steel and gold and silver [to:] spring from the previously soft souls of the tried," I believe it would have been an even stronger effort.

Still, the book is a great achievement and its sometimes-crowded and reaching sentences can be overlooked in a story of great beauty, told by a dazzling writer. Highly recommended.
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