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Like Fire-Hearted Suns by Melanie Joosten

It was a fabulous review on Theresa Smith’s website that prompted me to not only buy this wonderfully titled novel (taken from a quote by writer George Eliot no less) but thrust aside other books in my toppling TBR pile and privilege this one. Am I glad I did. Like Fire-Hearted Suns is a gorgeously written, clever and enlightening book set in London in the early 1900s – a time when women’s fight for suffrage was all too real and, despite dismissive social and political attitudes, dangerous as well. Beyond this, I think it’s also an important book in a day and age where women’s rights are still hotly contested and worryingly eroded.

Like Fire-Hearted Suns

Readers are introduced to three main characters around which history and life revolves. Firstly, there’s 17-year old, Beatrice, a young university student who, despite the privilege of further education, is all too aware that her chances of actually using a degree in a useful way are unlikely. As a woman, her choices are limited and marriage and motherhood predetermine her future, no matter her desires. So, when she finds herself in the offices of the Women’s Social and Political Union and in the company of feisty “New Women” and the infamous Pankhursts, for the first time, she sees a different path ahead.

Then, there’s pragmatic, science-minded Catherine, twin to a quiet, clever brother, she doesn’t find the cause of the suffragettes either appealing or necessary, even though her calling is not one women are meant to heed.

Finally, we meet Ida, widow, mother, and a wardress at Holloway Prison, the place the suffragettes, who refuse to accept what their political leaders and society deem for women, are sent and often punished. Frustrated with these women from a different class to her, and their endless fight for something Ida doesn’t entirely understand or see as important when she’s simply trying to exist, she gradually comes to empathise with their determination to fight against injustice, no matter the cost.

Always engrossing, sometimes moving, and shocking in parts, this book doesn’t steer away from highlighting the political and social inconsistencies, nor the violent lengths the suffragettes would go to in order to have their cause kept front and centre. How they justified their actions as the only alternative left to them if they were to bring about change in policy and fight for their political rights as thinking, feeling, human beings. Nor does the book shy from exposing the treatment the women received in prison – ostensibly to save their lies, but also to exert control and submission. What I particularly liked and the parts that really gave me pause for thought, was how the novel explored the divisions within the suffragettes themselves as well as wider society. How the one cause was not homogenous – there were factions, each with their own vision of how the vote could be achieved. Just like now, personal politics and the individual expression of these played a huge role in determining principles and action – with differing consequences. What becomes clear is that not everyone saw the suffragette fight as important or even necessary: women and men. So many paid meaningless lip service to suffrage, often just to avoid confrontation and keep women in their current place.

This was an excellent read with characters you genuinely care about and come to understand, even if you don’t always agree with their choices or methods; that, and you wish you were there to march beside them, present petitions, persuade and join the fight for what we now take for granted. Like Fire-Hearted Suns wears its history lightly yet so damn well and makes you realise that for women at least, it’s a case of plus cã change – the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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