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Art history meets contemporary romance in Susanna Kearsley’s The Firebird

Susanna Kearsley

Ashleigh Bonang/Handout

The Firebird
Susanna Kearsley

With her impressive new novel The Firebird, Toronto-area writer Susanna Kearsley deftly interweaves a compelling contemporary romance with a sweeping historical drama, and the fantastic with the realistic, to create a richly nuanced, delicately balanced novel that will not only satisfy her regular readers but seems well-positioned to win new converts to her unique approach to fiction.

Nicola Marter has a secret. The young Englishwoman, who works for a dealer who specializes in Russian art, has a specialized psychic ability: When she touches an object, she can catch glimpses of its previous owners in disjointed, often incomprehensible images. While some might regard such an ability as a gift to be nurtured and developed, Nicola sees it as a curse, something to be concealed and denied. As the novel begins, in fact, she has deliberately been avoiding using her abilities for more than two years.

That changes when a woman brings a small carving of a firebird into the gallery, desperately hoping to sell it. The woman claims that it is a family heirloom that once belonged to Russian Empress Catherine, who took the throne after the death of her husband, Peter the Great.

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While the woman has no proof of the carving's providence, Nicola knows, from a single touch, that she is telling the truth.

But there's no way she can prove it. Or is there? With the co-operation of a former intimate, Rob McMorran, Nicola follows the trail of the firebird from crumbling Scottish ruins, the remnants of a convent in Ypres and into modern St. Petersburg.

Drawing in elements of the Jacobite Rebellion and lingering Scottish resistance to the English in the early 18th century, The Firebird is linked to Kearsley's previous bestseller The Winter Sea, though not so closely as to deter new readers: The Firebird can be read with no knowledge of the previous book whatsoever (though readers may find themselves reading back to The Winter Sea, amplifying the effect of both books).

Despite the wealth of research evident in The Firebird, Kearsley, a museum curator by training, never allows historical detail to intrude oppressively upon the story.

Instead, she uses her vast knowledge and command of the history to create an entire, immersive world for her characters, and her readers, to inhabit. The characters themselves are richly drawn, and there is much pleasure to be had in the deft shifting of mores and attitudes between the historical and the contemporary storylines.

The Firebird is the sort of book one wants to curl up within and savour. In this, it's somewhat out of season: Perfectly suited for a long winter's night with a warm drink, it will, however, be just as effective on a summer afternoon.

Victoria writer Robert J. Wiersema is the author of Before I Wake and Bedtime Story.

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