Fire Damage | Kate Medina | 2016 (24 March) | HarperCollins | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book
Psychologist Dr Jessie Flynn is used to treating soldiers suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Having completed two tours in Afghanistan herself, Jessie knows all about the horrors that soldiers face. But Jessie’s latest patient is very different. Sami is the four-year-old son of Major Nicholas Scott, Intelligence Corps, who has recently returned to England from Afghanistan with horrific facial burns. Not surprisingly, little Sami is shocked and frightened by the transformation in his father’s appearance but Jessie believes something much more than this has traumatised the child. Desperate to do the right thing, Jessie tries to earn the trust of a small boy who has to grip a torch for comfort, shining it frantically to keep away the Shadowman.
One of Jessie’s earlier patients, Captain Ben Callan, a member of the Military Police Special Investigation Branch, is also in need of Jessie’s help, but this time it has nothing to do with the bullet scar on his temple. One Intelligence Corps sergeant, Andy Jackson, has been shot dead in Afghanistan, believed killed by another, sergeant Colin Starkey. But Callan believes that something is not quite right and calls in Jessie to help him question Starkey, who has been flown back to England along with the body of the dead man. Meanwhile, a gruesome corpse has washed ashore on a Sussex beach. As the cases converge, Jessie and Callan realise that the origins of all of this suffering and death may lie not in Afghanistan but here in England. Jessie firmly believes that Sami has the answers, if only she can unlock them.
Fire Damage is the first novel in a new series to feature Dr Jessie Flynn and it is an extremely strong one, promising great things to come. The case itself is a dark one, raising disturbing themes that also upset as Jessie finds herself unable to treat the young child objectively. Trauma is the word that best describes all of the cases that this novel combines. Whether inflicted by fire, bullet or torment, this is a novel full of damaged people. And it’s not just the patients or the deceased. Jessie and Callan both suffer from past experiences. While Callan’s wound is a more visible one – the bullet still lodged in his brain, Jessie’s is older and better buried. Her resulting OCD is a battle she fights throughout the novel and the reader wills her to succeed.
This is a thriller that grips from the beginning and doesn’t let go. It’s a fast and urgent read, not least because so much is going on and the narrative regularly shifts between the cases. There are plenty of strengths to Fire Damage but I think I enjoyed it most of all because of the character of Jessie and the beautiful way in which Sami is portrayed. It’s a heart-wrenching story and watching Jessie try to help him is moving. But Fire Damage is also a clinical and forensic read and I liked that contrast. The relationship between Jessie and the handsome and troubled Callan also appeals.
Mostly, though, Fire Damage is a disturbingly powerful read, which goes to the heart of its characters’ trauma. It digs, it probes and the characters hurt. It’s a perceptive and clever thriller that lingers on the mind.