Review: Ashes of Fiery Weather by Kathleen Donohoe

Ashes of Fiery Weather by Kathleen Donohoe

Genre: General Fiction / Family Saga

I’m desperately behind with my reviews and determined to catch up, so I’m going to cheat just a little and use the Goodreads synopsis for this one, rather than writing my own as I normally would. I also read Ashes of Fiery Weather and drafted this review waaaaaay back in October last year. Being a story about a family that immigrates to the US, and given everything that’s going on over there right now, I might have come at it a little differently if I were reading it this week. However, I didn’t think it was fair to ‘read into’ the story that way, given it wasn’t my actual reading experience and nor is Donohoe reacting to the current climate. That said, Ashes of Fiery Weather is ultimately a story of hope and resilience and a good choice for anyone seeking an uplifting read.

A debut novel about the passionate loves and tragic losses of six generations of women in a family of firefighters, spanning from famine-era Ireland to Brooklyn a decade after 9/11.

“There isn’t anything in the world that hurts like a burn.” No one knows the pain of a fire more than the women of the Keegan/O’Reilly clan. Kathleen Donohoe’s stunning debut novel brings to life seven unsentimental, wry, and evocative portraits of women from a family of firefighters.

When we meet Norah — the first member of her family to move from Ireland to New York — she is a mother of three, contemplating her husband’s casket as his men give him a full fireman’s funeral, and faced with a terrible choice. Norah’s mother-in-law, Delia, is stoic and self-preserving. Her early losses have made her keep her children close and her secrets closer. Eileen, Delia’s daughter, adopted from Ireland and tough-as-nails, yet desperate for a sense of belonging, is one of the first women firefighters in New York. It is through her eyes that we experience 9/11, blindsided by the events of that terrible day along with her.

Poignant, wise, and immersive,Ashes of Fiery Weather is a tour de force in the tradition of Let the Great World Spin, one that explores the emotional wounds and ultimate resilience of those drawn to fire, as well as the many ways we search for each other, and the many ways we hope to be rescued.

Ashes of Fiery Weather (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Aug. 2016) is an immersive family saga that explores what it means to settle in a new country and adopt that country as your own, to the point that you’re willing to sacrifice your life for it.

I was drawn to Ashes of Fiery Weather for the simple fact that that it focused on an Irish Catholic family that immigrates to New York. My own background is Irish Catholic, at least on my father’s side (McGoverns and Fitzgeralds). We ended up in Australia several generations back but I’m told that some of the family headed for the US instead, and I was keen to read a story about what that experience might have been like. I’ve always been somewhat fascinated by the US and occasionally wondered what our lives would look like if we’d also ended up there instead of here (ignoring the obvious fact that if that were the case, I probably wouldn’t exist).

I was also curious because I know embarrassingly little about my heritage. I’ve never been to Ireland. I can’t begin to imagine what it was like for my forebears, travelling halfway around the world to make a new home. I haven’t even taken up our religion. It’s not something I dwell on, but when I saw Ashes of Fiery Weather, I thought: Maybe this can give me a little insight.

I liked the idea that Donohoe focuses her narrative on the family’s women rather than their heroic husbands, fathers, brothers and sons. Her prose is clean and she vividly evokes her Brooklyn setting—it’s one of those books that really draws you into the world of the story.

I enjoyed reading about each of the women’s lives, although several weeks after reading, I have to admit that they’ve all blurred together a bit. The narrative isn’t linear, and even while I was reading, I found it a tad difficult to keep track of who was who and how everyone was related to everyone else. It didn’t help that the majority of the female characters end up pregnant when they don’t want to be, and this becomes a major part of their individual stories. While Donohoe explores the different ways each woman deals with her unplanned pregnancy (and that’s part of the point of the book), I was hoping for a little more variation between the stories.

That said, I appreciated that the narrative isn’t unduly sentimental or overly patriotic, which I (perhaps unfairly) suspected that a story about brave firefighters and the women who support them might very well be. I’d also heard it described as a 9/11 novel, and while a large chunk of the story explores the aftermath of that horrific event, it’s not the focus of the story.

Honestly, I’ve been at a bit of a loss as to how to review Ashes of Fiery Weather. It’s a good story, well told. I can’t really find fault with it and have no qualms recommending it—indeed, it was an enjoyable read—but it didn’t quite grip me, and I can’t put my finger on why. Annie over at The Misstery said something similar in her review. I wanted a little more of something, though I can’t say what.


See Ashes of Fiery Weather on Goodreads and purchase through BooktopiaBook Depository or Amazon.

Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for providing a copy of Ashes of Fiery Weather in exchange for an honest review.

Thanks also to Grammarly for picking up two critical issues and eleven advanced issues in my draft of this review. If, like me, you have trouble with typos, do give Grammarly a go!

—Margot XO 

Like what you see? Get the latest from Lectito delivered to your inbox.