Jamie Quatro’s first novel is a disappointing tale of a woman whose grasp on Christianity lacks maturity. Photo by Maude Schuyler Clay

Book review: Fire Sermon flames out in tedious detail

By  Kristina Glicksman, Catholic Register Special
  • June 4, 2018

Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro (Anansi International, 256 pages, softcover, $17.96 on Amazon.ca)

Though beautifully written at times, Fire Sermon is raunchy, poorly conceived and rather dull.

Jamie Quatro’s debut novel tells the story of Maggie, a woman who marries young because of a promise she made to God. As she approaches middle age, Maggie begins a relationship with another man, which turns into a brief affair which consumes her.  

Quatro has a gift for words.  Her writing is readable, even lyrical at times, although her desire to capture every detail often triumphs over a sense of proportion and there is a staleness to her style which has the odour of a creative writing factory rather than a human soul. The story is told as a series of vignettes that have very little in the way of emotion or character, and the overloading of irrelevant detail throughout the novel is tedious and self-indulgent.  To make matters worse, the words are often an end in themselves, revealing very little of substance or thought.

Sex plays a starring role throughout the novel, the descriptions being so frequent as to be almost nauseating and so brutal and animalistic that there hardly appears to be anything human or meaningful behind them. Quatro’s attempts to incorporate theology into Maggie’s understanding of her affair are clumsy and laughable. 

Maggie is presented as an intellectual, but she lacks the curiosity and depth of thought necessary to the portrayal of such a character. Attempts at intellectual conversation and thought are clunky and sound forced and unnatural, made worse by Quatro’s juvenile foray into the realms of theology. In the world of literature, there are few things as tedious as immaturity and ignorance dressed up as intelligent thought.

Raised in a Protestant family, Maggie’s young self exhibits some very identifiable traits of a person brought up with a legalistic understanding of religion who is trying to incorporate that into a young adult’s discovery of her sexuality. Unfortunately, Quatro ruins the moment with a direct appeal to the reader to excuse Maggie’s “self-indulgent, almost laughable repentance” over an act that was “only normal, and expected.” 

As Maggie ages, she essentially separates herself from her Christian past with no indication of a struggle, rarely praying or attending church services. She clearly has no relationship with God and it is hard to reconcile that with assertions of her as a Christian writer, comparing herself to Flannery O’Connor. Add to this Quatro’s cringingly facile and pseudo-intellectual attempts to create a conflict for the novel by having Maggie continually search for a way to theologically comprehend her infidelity and find a place for it within her self-absorbed understanding of her marriage. 

Her hollow expressions of penitence and struggle are so consistently negated by self-justification (with occasional pseudo-theology) that the whole basis for conflict falls apart.

The lack of depth and absence of a mature Christianity can be illustrated by two brief examples. In a journal entry reflecting on her affair, Maggie writes: “We were talking about God and theology (the delight, the utter joy of speaking with someone who shared the language of my childhood).” This one parenthetical phrase beautifully encapsulates Quatro’s approach to Maggie’s theology. However much she drops names like Aquinas and John of the Cross and Angela of Foligno, Maggie’s perception of God and her relationship with Him is still that of a child — God the lawgiver and Maggie the mostly unrepentant lawbreaker. There is no love there, no self-knowledge and certainly no knowledge of God.

The second example comes when Maggie and her lover exchange books midway through their brief relationship. She gives him her “marked-up copy of St. John of the Cross,” the detail suggesting that this is a well-loved book. But there is nothing in the entire novel to suggest why, when deciding on a book which best expresses her true self, she chooses this particular one.  

There is no indication that she has a superior grasp of the Spanish language, so one must assume that she is captivated by the meaning the words convey. And yet not only does she not possess a spirituality reflective of the influence of this Doctor of the Church, but she seems to possess almost no spirituality at all. Nor is the saint’s influence palpable in any other way throughout the novel.

These are just two examples of the immaturity and shallowness that inhabit the entire novel. They are reflective of a deep malaise that afflicts our society where Christians of all sorts are expected to face an increasingly secular, self-absorbed, and de-intellectualized world with a child’s understanding of God and religion. The result is literature like Fire Sermon.

(Glicksman is a writer living and working in Toronto.)

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