Sunday, July 26, 2020

"Fire on the Island"

Timothy Jay Smith has traveled the world collecting stories and characters for his novels and screenplays which have received high praise. Fire on the Island won the Gold Medal in the 2017 Faulkner-Wisdom Competition for the Novel. He won the Paris Prize for Fiction for his first book, A Vision of Angels. Kirkus Reviews called Cooper’s Promise “literary dynamite” and selected it as one of the Best Books of 2012. Smith was nominated for the 2018 Pushcart Prize for his short fiction, "Stolen Memories." His screenplays have won numerous international competitions. Smith is the founder of the Smith Prize for Political Theater. He lives in France.

Smith applied the Page 69 Test to Fire on the Island and reported the following:
From page 69:
The humble church boasted a number of notable icons, which Father Alexis had already capitalized on, as he had in his other parishes. Each village had been more miserable than the last—one reeked of pigs, another of an abattoir, and now Vourvoulos with its sardines—but they had a wealth of icons that Father Alexis painstakingly reproduced. At the seminary he had been required to master art restoration, the notion being that every priest should know how to repair aging icons or restore them if damaged in the country’s many earthquakes. He discovered he had a knack for precisely matching colors and recreating textures, and taught himself how to brighten icons by dabbing away years of soot, while using ash from incense to smudge his copies—rendering both the same dull sheen. By the time he crossed the line between reproductions and forgeries, his images could have fooled the original artists themselves.

The priest moved a stand of votive oil lamps to the side and folded back the ancient cloth on the stone altar to not risk damaging it with paint. Before he started, he opened the church door for air circulation; he didn’t like the buildup of fumes from paint and turpentine. The priest didn’t worry if someone caught him at work making his copies. He had a reputation for painting the most authentic fake icons. It was how he managed to steal the original ones.

He unrolled the rags in which he kept his brushes and picked up his palette, and looked the Crowned Madonna in the eye. Turning back to his easel, his copy stared back at him, too. Though disconcerting to have two Madonnas giving him a disapproving look, at least he had succeeded in capturing their roving eyes.

Engrossed in his task, Father Alexis didn’t notice anyone enter the open church door, and jumped with fright when he heard, “She is awesomely perfect!”

He whirled around.

It was Athina. Like the Virgin he was copying, she had draped a teal blue cloth loosely over her shoulders; and though not cradling a suckling infant, her clinging T-shirt left no doubt where a baby would press its hungry lips. The young priest, confronted by those demanding nipples, stepped back and bumped into his easel, smearing paint on his hand.
Fire on the Island is a puzzle where the pieces are gradually put together revealing the real mystery to the reader. Its basic premise, which is made evident before page 69, is that an arsonist has threatened to burn down a Greek island village that is home to an important Coast Guard station in the rescue of refugees crossing a narrow channel from Turkey. Not wanting the station to be destroyed by a fire, the FBI agent posted to Athens arrives undercover to investigate. He finds himself in a village rife with conflicts, some dating back generations, and everybody harboring secrets.

While page 69 itself doesn’t reveal the overall story, it reveals the secret of a principal character, the village priest. He’s an art forger. He’s turned skills that he learned at the seminary to restore ancient icons into a criminal enterprise, even aging his reproductions with soot while gently cleaning the originals to give them the same dull sheen. In this particular scene, he’s working on a forgery of a Madonna wrapped in a teal blue robe and nursing baby Jesus.

The priest is also a womanizer, which isn’t surprising since he’s in his early thirties and very handsome; and Orthodox priests, for the most part, are allowed to marry. When Athina, a beautiful 18-year-old, enters the church with a teal blue cloth draped over her shoulders (imitating the Madonna for her own ulterior motive), his eyes naturally drift to her breasts, not hidden beneath a nursing baby but revealed by a tight T-shirt. It’s a set-up for a troubling encounter that will later transpire between them.

The novel is told from many POVs that reveal secrets and animosities, and cast a wide net of suspicion that the FBI agent needs to sort through to try to identify the arsonist. The page 69 encounter between Father Alexis and Athina sets into motion events that haunt the book to its unexpected ending. But you need to turn the page to find out what happens next!
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Q&A with Timothy Jay Smith.

--Marshal Zeringue