Whooooaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhh – City On Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

Book Reviews, Book Thoughts, Recommended, Writing, Writing Thoughts

It’s 1977, and New York City is home to a huge variety of people. But the seemingly random shooting of a teenage girl in a park links some of them – a super-rich family who run huge businesses, junkies, teenagers, post-humanists, musicians, gay schoolteacher, a reporter and a police officer. A huge cast of characters attempt to find justice, meaning and happiness in a variety of ways, as a greater threat is gradually uncovered and the city begins to ignite.

I am completely blown away by this book. It’s scope, plot, characters and composition are simply extraordinary. The way it fits together, and the sheer fact that despite it being extremely long (I had it on kindle but apparently it’s 900 pages) it kept me hooked from start to finish. It’s magnificent triumph in portraying such an array of characters in deep, flawed but identifiable ways. The exceptional way the plot comes together. I’m still reeling!!!

It’s definitely a novel of place. It’s based in New York city, and though I occasionally was deterred by not knowing the connotations attached to a particular district, the city was drawn and evoked fantastically; with settings from the plushest of high rise apartments to the grubbiest of shacks. I loved delving into 70’s New York and exploring the people, city and cultures that were shown.

The characters were superb. Though occasionally when diving into yet another third-person-narrative of someone I didn’t know yet I wondered if I could ever be brought to care about them, unfailingly I did. And it was intriguing as the threads gradually wove together through the book and you realised how and why they were connected, or some of them met for the first time. Almost all of them are in pretty dire circumstances, and are trying to find an escape; a lot of them using drugs, drink and other people, but you felt yourself understanding and even rooting for characters who had done the most terrible things.

And despite the literariness of it, the book was also centred around an extremely gripping plot. The death doesn’t come for a decent chunk (I can’t say how much, I was too immersed for too long) but when it does, the suspense and mystery really begin to heat up. The story was told in different timelines; the death and then the events that end the book being the two central points with scenes before and afterwards from all our characters that gradually explain the first and set up the second. The glimpses that you gradually glean from so many different angles keep you hooked and reading. Hallberg’s UK editor compares it to a ‘HBO box set’ rather than other books – and in the complexity, detail and character story arcs I would agree. Perhaps this is a new trend?

For me this book was most alike to The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, but to me this is far superior. The characters are more human, the action more compelling and the ending far better. Because it is just so long I don’t know if I will read it again, and I may hesitate to recommend it as it’s got a lot of darkness, sex and drugs in there, but GOODNESS ME. WHAT A BOOK!!!

Amazingly I was sent an ARC of this book by Vintage, Penguin Random House, which in no way affected my review. Thank you!

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