Books

From Our Own Fire by William Letford review – hilarious and thought-provoking in equal measure

Part poetry, part prose, it is dystopian and science fiction, but also an intimate character study, and a book about families and connection

From our own fire book cover

One of the things I love most is seeing a writer really stretch themselves, as with the profound, hilarious and empathetic From Our Own Fire by William Letford. The Scottish writer has had two previous highly acclaimed poetry collections and is a superb performer, but his third book takes things to another level. 

It’s hard to even describe what this book is. Part poetry, part prose, it is dystopian and science fiction, but also an intimate character study, and a book about families and connection. In each double page, the left-hand side contains a short prose section, while the right-hand side has a connected poem, and the book gradually gains a cumulative power that is akin to a novel, while also something else entirely. 

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The story revolves around the Macallums, a family of pragmatic people who do things with their hands – joiner, nurse, stonemason, hairdresser and so on. The book is from the stonemason Joe’s point of view, as the family are settled in a small, self-sufficient rural community following some world-changing event which is gradually revealed to be an initially benign AI called Andy taking over the planet. 

The family’s practical skills ground them as well as making them able to continue to live and function in a world that is seemingly chaos. The Macallums get snippets of news from the wider world, which include forays into science fiction when Andy discovers a probe orbiting the moon. 

Like a lot of Letford’s previous work, there is a wonderful juxtaposition here of earthy, practical description and ideological flights of fancy. Big, intellectual and emotional concepts are punctured by everyday routine and conversation, Letford eking profundity out of the most seemingly mundane moments. But while the poet’s previous collections were exactly that – collections of individual poems – From Our Own Fire has a depth and interlinked narrative that gives it an intense emotional heft while also feeling light as a feather. This is a genuinely groundbreaking piece of work, hilarious and thought-provoking in equal measure. I can’t wait to see what Letford does next. 

Doug Johnstone is an author and journalist.

From our own fire book cover

From Our Own Fire by William Letford is out now (Carcanet, £14.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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