Excerpt from Night of Fire by Colin Thubron, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Night of Fire

by Colin Thubron

Night of Fire by Colin Thubron X
Night of Fire by Colin Thubron
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2017, 384 pages
    Jan 2018, 384 pages

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Zoƫ Fairtlough

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It began with a spark, an electrical break like the first murmur of a weakening heart that would soon unhinge the body, until its conflagration at last consumed the whole building. Years ago, at the end of the Victorian century, the house had been built in dignified isolation, but later developers split its storeys into separate flats, and the once-grand staircases now ascended past empty landings and closed doors. It was slipping into stately old age. Its balconies sagged behind their wrought-iron balustrades, and chunks of stucco pediment were dropping off on to the dustbins fifty feet below. The garden behind, which had once been the landlord's pride, lay half forgotten, and its shrubs – photinia, daphne, rosemary – burgeoned unclipped over the lawn.

Somewhere in the bowels of the building, behind a damp wall, a kink in a carbonised wire had become a tiny furnace. Down this half-blocked artery it travelled to a worn Bakelite socket, and the tenant asleep in the basement – it was past midnight – never woke. The January night was cold. Far below, the sea made an angry rasping. Inland the town showed broken threads of light where it had gone to sleep.

The landlord was watching other fires. From his rooftop terrace the sky was so clear that he – an insomniac muffled in scarves and padded jacket – could write his notes by starlight. Hunched in the circle of his makeshift observatory, he watched his breath misting in the night air, and listened to the sea, and wondered if his wife was yet asleep. The tube of the telescope was ice cold under his palms. This refractive model was not like his old one, grown friendly over the years, but a computerised tyrant. In the dark his fingers would blunder uncertainly over its keypad, or jog the ocular as he coupled it with his camera. But after long minutes of fumbling, the focused sky would startle him with a revelation far beyond his ageing naked eyesight. A supernova would appear like a ghost in a zone he had thought empty, or he was transfixed by a nebula whose mist now splintered into a blaze of separated stars.

His gaze had changed over the years. As a younger man the remoteness of these galaxies had swept over him with an icy faintness, as if he were falling upwards. Their voids, their silence, sometimes left him physically trembling. He even wondered about his lapsed belief in God. But little by little this night-time hobby toughened into something more familiar. He observed all the prime objects catalogued by Herschel, and in the hope of making a small contribution to science, he embarked on a fruitless search for undetected dying stars.

Then an old passion for photography surfaced. With a single-lens reflex camera mounted on the telescope, he accessed even distant galaxies. After focusing on nebulae to the south, where light pollution faded over the empty sea, the results of his half-hour aperture exposures shocked him into something close to fear. On his sensitised prints the mammoth hydrogen clouds boiled in great articulated explosions of gas and dust, scattered with blue asterisks where new stars were shining. Each of these lurid turmoils, he knew, was an ungraspable ferment of new creation, often the birthplace of a million suns. The photographs were beautiful and petrifying. Whole galaxies turned like Catherine wheels silently in space. And most spectacularly his camera yielded crimson images that burst and spilled out like intestines on the blackness. He could not look at them without the illusion of some celestial wound. Whole seams of stardust – a hundred thousand light years across – undulated like arteries in space, or blistered up from nowhere. And the constellations shone so dense that scarcely a gap of night showed between.

But tonight, although the sky was full, he ignored his camera. He was expecting the annual meteor shower of the Quadrantids. A sharp wind had got up and was ruffling the sea into faint crests. Once or twice a solitary meteor flared and died across the sky. But the rain of fire he had anticipated – sixty Quadrantids could stream out in less than an hour – was still impending. They would come, he knew, from the radiant of Boötes, where in 1860 an enigmatic new star – a brilliant nova – had blazed and vanished within a week. This star would perhaps reappear – it survived in the charts as the invisible T Boötis – and it had taken on a stubborn significance for him, so that he had returned to its site again and again, like a mourner to a grave. Its void, far beyond the light of Arcturus, seemed to promise some mysterious epiphany. His computercontrolled telescope mount could lock on to its site within a single minute, and he did this obsessively now as if he must personally witness its resurrection. But when he refined the focus on it, there was only a circle of dark. And this deeper void, he knew, was seven hundred million light years from Earth.

From the book: Night of Fire by Colin Thubron. Copyright © 2017 by Colin Thubron. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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