Summary: Rachel lives in constant fear that she will burst into flames. She can feel the heat building in her gut. She keeps buckets of water under the bed. She keeps them to fend off the flames that her body may create. Autocombustophobia. That’s what they say she has. No one will believe Rachel when she explains that she spontaneously combusted once before. That’s why her body is covered in burns. Rachel’s mother is the only one who knows what really happened to her. All she said was that it was an accident, before she disappeared leaving Rachel to live with her grandparents. When Rachel becomes reunited with her estranged mother, she struggles to uncover the truth behind her injuries. As Rachel spends time with the mother she has never known, she is thrown into a strange world of paranormal obsession, spells, and sage burning. Long buried family secrets are revealed and Rachel’s fear of Spontaneous Human Combustion becomes unmanageable. There are some terrifying truths to uncover and a man on fire. He stands burning at the foot of her bed.
As someone who has been an avid reader their entire life, it’s rare that I come across a book with such a unique premise; one that explores such delicate topics in a meaningful and heart-breaking realistic way.
If I had a gun pointed to my head, the only story I could think of that has evoked this sort of pathos in me is Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
Like Gregor’s insect-like appearance is a great metaphor for the disposable nature of the low-class worker, Rachel’s condition of spontaneous human combustion is a great allegory for mental illness.
Rachel’s belief she is going to lose control and “burst into flames” at any moment is pervasive and all-consuming, informing nearly every action she takes, much like how a sufferer of mental turmoil is enslaved by their compulsions and paranoid behaviors.
It also puts an obvious strain on the relationships she has in her life, particularly with family members. While there are people that feel sorry for Rachel and her “condition” a lot of people are exhausted by her eccentricities, especially her grandmother. While she obviously loves Rachel and wants what is best for her, it is difficult carrying for someone who is so clearly damaged. Yet another reason why the allegory of mental health works so effectively.
To me, the dysfunctional relationships Rachel has with the adults in her life (particularly with her estranged mother) is the lifeblood of this book. Yes, the burning man is intriguing, but watching the tangled mess that is the relationship between mother and daughter slowly unravel is what made this story for me. There’s just something so heartbreakingly sincere about it. You feel Rachel reaching out and you want nothing more than to wrap her in bubblewrap and take her home with you.
Moving on from the characters, the pacing itself is excellent as well. While the first few chapters are undoubtedly the weakest part of the book, the rest of the story moves along at a decent clip, giving proper weight to each scene without dragging on for too long.
This is especially true in the third act when the proverbial shit hits the fan.
The third act is where things go from “good” to–
–in the best possible way.
While I wouldn’t exactly call Combustion a “scary” book, it is great at creating a disturbing atmosphere that gives the reader a deep sense of foreboding. It is especially effective when it describes what it is like when someone spontaneously combusts. It’s so visceral and unnerving it makes your skin crawl. The description of human fat being like wax is especially creepy and has branded itself into my head forever.
Overall, while not a scary book, it is an evocative story that both disturbs and breaks your heart at the same time. The author writes with compassion and devastating pragmatism, crafting life-like characters that yearn for compassion and understanding in an unforgiving world.
Now, let’s get to the nitty gritty.
Everyone that hasn’t read the book yet–
Because we are heading over to SPOILER TOWN.
I want to be clear: I love this book, I do. But….
WHY THE HELL WOULD YOU GIVE AWAY THE TWIST AT THE BEGINNING OF THE BOOK?!
Okay, it isn’t exactly the beginning of the book, it’s on page, like, 90 but still.
It was given away so freely and so early I thought it had be a red-herring.
To be fair to the author it…kind of was?
I thought the truth was Helene performed a satanic ritual on Rachel (most likely a sacrifice of some sort) and, in doing so, accidentally released a demon that burned her and formed some sort of parasitic attachment to her. My mind went to Faustian pacts and the possibility of being dragged into Hell, but….no.
Not only was the twist given away once, it was given away three separate times by three different people. The first time Rachel is told by her half-sister. The second time she is told by her mom’s friend, and the third time we hear it straight from her mom’s mouth that it wasn’t supernatural.
Bearing all this in mind, when the time comes and Rachel finally has the epiphany that she isn’t cursed by some supernatural phenomenon, it really doesn’t have any emotional weight to it-again- because we, the audience, already know.
Rachel: My mother let me get burned. I don’t have spontaneous combustion at all!
True, we didn’t know the full story in context but that doesn’t change the fact that the audience is aware from a very early point in the book nothing supernatural is going on. As a consequence, every paranormal scene thereafter falls flat.
I didn’t fear the ash man because he was just a figment of Rachel’s shattered mind. Therefore, when the evil creature reared its ugly head, I was just sitting on the sidelines waiting for Rachel to figure out what I already knew.
I would be exaggerating if I said this “ruined” my experience (it didn’t) but it did lessen the horror angle I think the novel was going for. I never stopped caring, however, because I still didn’t know where the story was heading. In spite of the massive self-spoiling, I still wanted to find out where it was leading to.
I was right to trust the narrative because as soon as Rachel pours gasoline on herself, the story goes from “This is an enjoyable experience” to “I physically cannot put this book down until I find out what happens.”
Rachel’s growing hatred of her mother is great. Helene having “blood on her hands” is great, the and the reveal that Rachel is an incest baby was–
Pretty much everything in the third act was beyond reproach and it’s hard for me to think of anything negative to say about it.
Not to mention it has a Rebecca ending, which is my favorite kind of ending.
Overall, this story has a lot of heart and pain, making it an enjoyable yet bittersweet read.