After my first few weeks on the job, I needed a good YA to occupy me on the train. This gripping tale of faith, family and selfhood, and their interconnectedness in the life of a young girl weaned on religious extremism was the perfect way to stifle commuter-boredom.
Moonbeam has lived in the desert with the Lord’s Legion for most of her life after her family left their old lives to join the sect. But as she’s grown up, lost her father and mother, and seen behaviour awful enough to challenge her faith in her beliefs about the community she belongs to, Moonbeam has to separate the voices in her head: the one that tells her BELIEVE BELIEVE BELIEVE, SUBMIT SUBMIT SUBMIT, and the one that tells her to be brave and face reality. And then there’s the fire, and it all has to come to light…
I came to this book on Patrick Ness’ recommendation – so I knew it’d be a good ‘un. The blurb is an instant catch – outlining a completely original and gritty plot that captures elements of the mystery, thriller and contemporary genres all in one go. Indeed, the concept of a religious cult that to those inside it doesn’t seem like a cult but is all too clear to those on the outside is interestingly explored from a YA perspective. At a formative time in her life, Moonbeam is not only challenged with finding out who she is, but who she is allowed to be within the confines of her religion.
Hill subtly links the themes and events in After the Fire to real-life occurrences, such as the rise of Scientology in the last few decades, and the Waco siege of 1993. But more than this, through the narration of Moonbeam, he conveys these events to us from the inside and the consequences they have mentally and physically are explored in the ‘After’ sections of the novel, where Moonbeam is in counselling.
I think the most effective aspect of the book stems from this divide between ‘Before’ and ‘After’ the fire which destroys the Lord’s Legion and sees Moonbeam removed from the compound. We slowly see Father John’s voice peter out, and Moonbeam’s own inner voice assert itself as she learns what it is to exist independently of religion, rules and elders.
In the end, whilst the extreme plot and its themes make this book seem like a political statement about the corrupting and worrying influence of religion on young minds, in reality, After the Fire is more of an experiment in how young people must forge their own identities and beliefs, despite barriers put in their paths.