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Days of the Commune come thrillingly to life

Liberty’s Fire
by Lydia Syson
(Hot Key Books, £7.99)

WRITING fiction for teenagers is a particularly difficult task. Pitching a story so that it does not come across as too childish, or reeks of the musty adult world, takes great skill.

The question becomes even more acute when the subject matter is historical. How can a writer bring history alive for a younger generation without over-simplifying or becoming bogged down in explanatory detail? And then there is the gender question — do you offer romance or swashbuckling action?

Lydia Syson manages to achieve a delicate balance between all those contending issues in this novel about the Paris Commune.

Liberty’s Fire may take a while to get off the ground but the reader is very soon swept up into the turmoil, drama and conflict during the siege of Paris in 1871 when the reactionary French government, led by Adolphe Thiers and supported by his erstwhile enemy the Prussians, crushed the popular take-over of the city.

The Commune was the first workers’ revolution with a radical, socialist agenda. It lasted for just over two months and was suppressed with the utmost brutality by the French ruling class. Between 20-35,000 people were killed, with 4,000 deported to the French colonies and many more imprisoned or driven into exile. Marx and Engels viewed the Commune both as an event that validated their theories and as an experience from which the working-class movement could learn.

Syson brings this pivotal episode of 19th-century history glowingly alive.

Through the eyes of the young violinist Anatole and the orphaned working-class girl Zephyrine, both recent arrivals in the city, we experience the refusal of Parisians to accept the French government’s servile capitulation.

Instead, they decide to run the city themselves.

The couple, meeting on the street in unusual circumstances, soon fall in love. Both are unwittingly sucked into the turmoil and soon become actively involved in the defence of the Commune.

With its defeat, Anatole manages to escape to exile to England via Geneva, while Zephyrine is transported to New Caledonia.

Romance is at the centre of a book which even so never becomes sentimental.

The love story is firmly embedded in the historic fabric of the events, with the reader learning about a historical process while following the riveting fate of the two protagonists.

There is a marked feminist element, with strong women playing central roles, not as mere decoration, and perhaps this may make it a novel which appeals more to girls than boys.

But, as the anniversary of the Commune is marked over the coming weeks, this is a great read for young people — and adults for that matter — irrespective of gender.

  • Lydia Syson will be discussing her work as part of the Children and Socialism series of events at the Marx Memorial Library, Clerkenwell Green, London EC1 on March 31, details: marxlibrary.org.uk

By John Green

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