When writing about Irène Némirovsky, it’s tempting to focus on the tragic circumstances of the last few years of her life. After a successful early career as a writer, during the German occupation of France she was unable to publish her work and forced to wear the yellow star; in 1942 she was arrested and sent to Auschwitz, where she died. Her young daughters survived, and kept her papers, leading to the discovery of the unfinished novel Suite Française and its eventual publication in the U.S. in 2006. Now, a second novel has been found among Némirovsky’s papers. The much shorter Fire in the Blood, which takes place in a small Burgundy village, doesn’t have the scope or dramatic backdrop of Suite Française, but that, perhaps, will keep reviewers’ focus where it belongs: on Némirovsky’s clean prose (translated again by Sandra Smith) and deep insight into the human psyche.
Fire in the Blood is told from the perspective of Silvio, a man of about 50 who has returned recently to his home village after years abroad. He is welcomed back by his cousin Hélène Erard, her husband François and their daughter Colette, who is soon to be married. But he maintains a certain detachment from the town and his friends and family, wandering among these sturdy, calm people like a breeze blowing through the trees, remaining an observer to their amusements and intrigues. “At my age, you feel a kind of coldness,” Silvio tells Colette, “of course, you can’t understand that, any more than I can understand your love affairs and foolish mistakes.” As the novel unfolds, the reader gradually realizes that Silvio is not quite as impassive as he seems, and that he is haunted by a passionate act in his past.
Némirovsky spent years in a small village much like this one, and her novel is full of sharp observations on such communities, especially their attitude toward outsiders and how they are willing to keep even the darkest secrets to protect one of their own. Fire in the Blood is a study of passion its power to bring happiness and destruction in equal measure, and the loss felt once it has dissipated.