After the Fire by Will Hill
This was our book group choice for July. Our theme was ‘Fire’ – and we all liked the sound of this novel inspired by the Waco cult, not realising that it was a YA book at the time. Over the years we have read a handful of YA novels, so that wasn’t a problem at all for us – if it was well-written – and this book did win the YA Book Prize in 2018. Although not flawless, It turned out to be surprisingly engaging and a rather compelling read.
Moonbeam tells her story in a dual timeline – before and after the fire that ended the cult that she grew up in. She is the oldest teenager left who came to the compound as a child – all the others were born there. The charismatic tyrant Father John rules the Lord’s Legion with fire and brimstone preaching, a group of enforcers and a rod of iron. Moonbeam’s father died and her mother was banished, leaving Moonbeam promised to Father John to join his wives when she comes of age. Her increasing doubt over her impending future and the wrongness of Father John’s treatment of anyone he says transgresses – even the children – is stoked by the arrival of Nate, the first outsider to join the cult for many years. Naturally, she’ll fall for him.
The short chapters alternate, and ‘After’, we meet the children rescued from the fire, who are being held in a secure unit undergoing therapy. They are scared, suffering PTSD, and confused. Moonbeam has to meet daily with the kindly Dr Hernandez, and later, Agent Carlyle, as they gradually de-programme her and piece together what happened in the cult, and the appalling abuse she and her peers received at the hands of Father John. The younger children look up to Moonbeam, their natural leader – all except Luke, who is desperate to join Father John’s henchmen, and remains steadfast to the Lord’s Legion’s faulty values – the two will continue to clash ‘after’ as well when the children have group time together.
The story unwinds gradually over its 496 pages – and although, for me it would have been tauter, shorter – the pace kept us with it. Naturally, as the story is told from a teenager’s PoV, there are aspects that are less developed, and the tidy-up at the end was beyond neat. In the real world, we felt it would be unusual for an outside agent to join in therapy sessions in the way Agent Carlyle did, but he proved to be a brilliant character who was able to help Moonbeam see the truth.
As a group we were fairly split between those who enjoyed the ‘before’ timeline over the ‘after’ and vice-versa. I was of the latter persuasion, more interested in what happened next, finding the ‘before’ story more predictable and mundane in the way that those imprisoned by a cult don’t do much apart from grow things, clean, pray, be preached at and punished. Hill doesn’t hold back on the awful life in the compound, so this book is rather grim for YA (but not as grim as Kevin Brooks’s The Bunker Diary – see here). How you deal with it later, as Evie has to in Emma Cline’s bestseller The Girls (reviewed here) will determine the rest of your life – luckily it’s a YA book and Moonbeam gets her happy ending. After the Fire was well worth reading, it was well-crafted (if long) but page-turningly pacy and generated a good discussion so I’d recommend it. (8/10)
Source: Own copy. After the Fire, Will Hill (Usborne, 2017) paperback, 496 pages.