Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1758
Of Rupert Thomson’s novels, Dreams of Leaving (1988) and Five Gates of Hell (1991), the latter best foreshadows the highly literary characters and style of Rupert Thomson’s Air and Fire. The structure of this novel, moreover, proceeds in the framework of a three-month period and through a balance of obsessions.
The focal protagonist of Air and Fire is Suzanne Valence, for it is through her that one is meant to judge the rationalism of her husband, Théophile, as a failure, and it is because of her that the characters Wilson Pharaoh and Félix Montoya round out the male obsessions in the novel.
Air and Fire reminds one of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857; English translation, 1886), for Emma Bovary and Suzanne Valence have genteel if provincial French backgrounds, both are restless, both marry men of science (Emma a doctor, Suzanne an engineer) who are blind to their wives’ needs, and both women ignite the passions of aristocrats and follow their own passions to the threshold of death.
Beyond these, Suzanne Valence has the chance for the kind of travel that Emma Bovary does not. A protégé of Gustave Eiffel, Théophile Valence is sent by him to construct an iron church in Santa Sofía, an impromptu town in Baja, Mexico, on the Sea of Cortez. With the “two thousand, three hundred and forty-eight component parts” of this church stowed on the steamer S.S.Korrigan, Théo, having let Suzanne accompany him, sets out on this journey, which for him is a task of measurable difficulties and for Suzanne is a wondrous adventure. She even relishes the perilous detour of the ship around Cape Horn.
In its rawness and heat, the environment into which Suzanne disembarks fills her with interest in it, its people, and sex. By this time, however, Théo, fifteen years older than she and obsessed with erecting his church, cannot relieve her, and she is drawn to Wilson Pharaoh, an American drifter, and even to Félix Montoya, a Mexican aristocrat. Of these two, Wilson is an idealist and Montoya a tyrant. These traits govern their love for Suzanne. It is during April that she journeys to and begins to settle in Santa Sofía, adjusting to Calle Francesca in the French quarter of town, and Suzanne also conducts Wilson and Montoya to the center of the plot in this month, because they fall in love with her.
May, the second time frame of the novel, begins as Montoya invites the Valences to tea (meaning Suzanne, to whom he gives the invitation) and ends as Théo asks Wilson to look after his wife in the name of his “friendship” with her. The June section begins with Montoya’s love letter to Suzanne and ends with Wilson’s return from the desert into which Suzanne has fled and from which Théo has begged him to rescue her.
The news of Montoya’s death by mutilation and lynching, brought on by his tyrannical nature, and Wilson’s preparation to sail north to San Diego, which his idealistic nature anticipates, are important features of the July—or concluding—part of the novel. The use of Wilson and Montoya to help bracket, and at the end bolster, the time line of Air and Fire shows how critical they are to the plot, just as their desire for Suzanne is critical to revealing their true natures.
Although he is a prospector, Wilson cannot “imagine being rich.” “The idea of gold . . . the looking for it” defines him, not its possession. Suzanne is the human form of gold to him, continually to be moved toward rather than obtained. Suzanne fails to see how awful it is for him to translate Montoya’s love letter for her, so he drinks himself into a raving melancholy and vanishes into the desert. Nevertheless, he cannot shake his love for Suzanne. When she herself retreats into the desert, thinking that this will save Montoya from being killed, as she dreams he will be, Wilson follows her. He does not rescue her so much, in fact, as play out his sense of her, not only seeing her head on the ground in a nimbus (or saintly halo) of crystals he mistakes for gold but also burying what he thinks is her corpse in the lake at Mission San Ignacio.
Montoya, on the other hand, wants Suzanne so badly that he is willing to kill to get her. She is flattered by his attention and curious about its intensity. With Théo too absorbed by his work to protect her, she lets herself be driven alone to Montoya’s house for tea. He has, however, “prepared a feast for her . . . She felt almost crushed by the weight of the food.” Later, he demands that she desert Théo: “We could go now. My carriage is waiting behind the rocks.” When she refuses, he shoots his horse. Even later, his invitation to go for a ride with him on the submarine he has had renovated for his use has all the subtlety of a subpoena. Suzanne is enchanted by the underside of the Sea of Cortez, though, until Montoya all but rapes her. Her anger saves her from him, but not from his cruel self-assurance: “He’s old,” he says of Théo. “Soon he’ll be dead . . . And then . . . I’ll be waiting.”
Suzanne’s love itself is pure. Unlike her literary forebear, Emma Bovary, she genuinely loves her husband. Because of this, she can neither give in to Montoya’s siege of her body and heart nor understand Wilson Pharaoh’s need for her desire. Still, since Théo has failed her own desire, she masturbates, entertains Montoya’s advances, and overindulges Wilson’s friendship, for she has him play the piano for her in the afternoons, cooks for him, paints a rose on the cast of his broken foot, and goes on a fishing trip with him.
Suzanne’s nature is more complex, however, than her need for love and adventure. She has dreams that prophesy death. She has the first of these when she is a child; she dreams her doll falls down a slope. Shortly after this, she and her friend Claire sneak aboard a barge loaded with apples, on top of which Claire loses her footing and dies sliding to the bottom. Suzanne has many other dreams that give her a glimpse of the future in general, but after she marries Théo and has sex with him, the dreams disappear—that is, until sex itself disappears from her life in Santa Sofía. Then her prophetic dreams come back, notably the one she has about Montoya, which at first shows two Indian women dancing in his uniform and later shows Montoya being crucified by Indians who have gone on a rampage.
So Suzanne is a mysterious character who shimmers between the greedy love of Félix Montoya and the generous love of Wilson Pharaoh. She stands for an extreme romanticism balancing the extreme rationalism that her husband represents.
Symbols, indeed, are basic to the style of Air and Fire, and they are always associated with its characters. For example, La Huesuda (“the Bony One”) is a whore whom Wilson Pharaoh sleeps with early in the novel. Her balcony is a symbol of her, for it is rickety; it collapses under Wilson’s weight, proving as dangerous as La Huesuda proves to be later in the story. When Wilson rebuilds her balcony at the end, he is rebuilding his relationship with her—with the town, really—unlike Théo, whose iron church remains a shambles after an Indian uprising wrecks it following an accident in one of the French mines.
The church itself is a symbol of the rationalism embedded in Théo’s character, useless to his wife and to the Indians, whose sense of life is rooted in chance and nature. In Suzanne’s case, water symbolizes her need to be fluid, pure, submerged, and fulfilled.
For Wilson, gold and Suzanne herself (including her red-blond hair, reminding him of Saffron, a woman he has carried a love for since he was sixteen) symbolize the beauty toward which his life must move in order to mean anything. In a way, gold and Suzanne are interchangeable for Wilson; he sees “her skin like gold lifted dripping from a river” and “her head crowned in gold, which was the way he had always imagined her.”
Often such symbols incorporate extremes, such as Montoya’s uniform, which shows his conceit, and his submarine, which shows his perversion of the rational. One symbol, however, in the story is fitted to moderation, and it is Dr. Emile Bardou’s waistcoats. They are gorgeous; one, for example, is “cream silk brocade . . . overlaid with a tracery of ferns in palest green and gold”; another is “raspberry, peppermint and gold”; yet another “resembled a garden in summer: pale-gold roses planted in a field of green.” The Indians in the uprising loot the doctor’s waistcoats, thinking that they will magically protect them from harm. They are wrong, for the waistcoats are not supernatural but symbolize the beauty of nature brought into balance with art and the useful logic that Bardou represents as a doctor.
Thomson’s less structural tropes are pleasant surprises in themselves. Of La Huesuda’s anger at Wilson Pharaoh, for example, Thomson writes, “His clothes flew from the dark hole of her room like dirt scratched by a cat.” He says of Suzanne, “She could see a section of the coastline. It looked like a biscuit; if she reached out and touched it, it would crumble.” Of Théo’s mother he says, “She resembled an engine of war that could be wheeled onto any battlefield and would always find the weakest point.”
Air and Fire does not limit its audience. It has romance, adventure, and exotic locales for those who wish to be entertained, and characters and a style saturated with significance for those who wish to be enriched. The wide aim of such a novel is hard to achieve, but Rupert Thomson has done it.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XC, December 15, 1993, p. 739.
The Christian Science Monitor. February 10, 1994, p. 13.
Kirkus Reviews. LXI, November 1, 1993, p. 1352.
Library Journal. CXVIII, November 15, 1993, p. 101.
London Review of Books. XV, July 8, 1993, p. 19.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, March 13, 1994, p. 18.
The New Yorker. LXX, March 28, 1994, p. 115.
Publishers Weekly. CCXL, November 29, 1993, p. 54.
The Times Literary Supplement. April 9, 1994, p. 21.
The Washington Post. XXIV, January 21, 1994, p. G2.
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