The Day Before the Fire by Miranda France, book review: Restoring faith in nuanced prose

The book explores the contradictions and ambiguities of the heritage industry

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The Independent Culture

The 1989 fire at Uppark in West Sussex, and the subsequent restoration of the stately home, is the inspiration for Miranda France's new novel.

Instead of Uppark, we have Turney House in Roehampton, south-west London, owned by the aristocratic Marchant family. "In order to recreate the 18th-century interiors," we are told, "a generation of craftsmen and women had to learn methods that had been forgotten for 150 years."

The book, narrated by paper conservator Ros Freeman, is an exploration of the contradictions and ambiguities of the heritage industry. Initially, it feels as if this is going to be a rather dry account about the intricacies of conservation work.

But then, just as Ros peels back the wallpaper in one room and detects signs of a "ghost" layer underneath, the author undercuts the heritage-dominated story with a dramatic and ultimately touching personal narrative. Ros is that archetypal character, a conflicted protagonist who has to solve the mystery of her past in order to achieve happiness in the present and future.

Recently separated from her husband, Chris, she wonders whether her own relationship difficulties have anything to do with her absent father. "Somebody once told me that we never escape the patterns laid down in childhood," runs the first line, a sentence that neatly sums up the themes of the book.

France, who made her name as a writer of travel memoirs, is interested in the ways we construct identity, the interplay of surface and depth, and the endlessly fascinating subject of secrets and lies.

This is a subtle and deeply satisfying book, rich in visual imagery. A scrap of vivid green wallpaper placed in Ros's ziplock bag is "trapped like an etherised butterfly". It brims with a gentle humour, too. As a teenager, Ros, who grows up away from her unreliable mother, becomes fascinated by history and enjoys watching documentaries, "which my mother, at a safe distance in Brighton, thought might be a sign of depression."

Ros's method of conservation is based on a philosophy of "there and not there": "Our restoration work doesn't stand out, but it's there for anybody who wants to see it," she says. The same principle governs France's approach: superficially, the narrative (which investigates the concept of authenticity) may seem simple, but this is the essence of France's skill as a novelist.

Beneath the light surface there is a mistress of the art at work. If there is such a thing as an "authentic" writer, then France certainly makes the grade.