“Two families. One night. A constellation of lives changed forever”

  • Book: Signal Fires
  • Location: New York State
  • Author: Dani Shapiro

Review Author: Yvonne@FictionBooks



Signal Fires is essentially the story of two families, Dr Ben Wilf, his wife Mimi and their children Sarah and Theo; and their neighbours Shenkman, his wife Alice and their son Waldo. It is 1985 and Ben and Mimi Wilf have lived on Division Street, Avalon, New York, since they were newly weds and expecting their first child, almost two decades ago. In middle class suburbia, home to young professional families, Ben is a much respected pillar of the community, until the fateful night when his children cause the death of Misty Zimmerman, ironically in full few of the entire street and right outside their own front door. Ben makes a fatal error of professional judgement that night, which will haunt him forever and which will not have helped to heal the rift which immediately opens up between brother and sister, and between the siblings and their parents, leaving unspoken recriminations and resulting in both teenagers leaving the family home just as soon as they are able to.

By comparison, come the 1990s, Mimi and Ben are by now just about the oldest residents on the street, when the Shenkmans move in across the way. It is here that their own son is due to be born, so without knowing any of the history surrounding Ben’s downfall from grace, Shenkman finds himself calling on the medical services Ben can provide, when Alice goes into a premature and difficult labour at home and paramedic help is some distance away. Having successfully delivered young Waldo Shenkman into his mother’s arms, Ben takes a keen interest in the lad, although neither he nor anyone else has any idea of events unfolding behind closed doors.

Fast forward eleven years to 2010 and Waldo, who is now eleven, has an IQ which labels him a child genius and is obsessed by what he sees as the infinite wonders of space and the place of humanity in the wider universe. Unfortunately, Shenkman senior has never been able to cope with, or adapt to, the responsibilities of fatherhood, which has left him feeling bitter, angry and inadequate; although to Alice and Waldo, this translates into a man with a vicious tongue, who rules the house with a regime of terror and subjugation. Meanwhile, across the street, Mimi Wilf has retreated to a place inside her mind which only she can access, so Ben has reluctantly rehomed her in a local nursing facility, where he is now looking to join her, having sold the rather dilapidated property to another aspiring young family. Neither of the couple’s, now middle-aged children, maintain regular contact with them, with Theo having eventually settled relatively close by in Brooklyn, where he runs a couple of successful restaurants and Sarah having moved right across country to California with her husband and twin daughters. He therefore has no real idea that both of them are still so haunted by the trauma of that long ago night, that they are living dysfunctional, off-the-rails lives, barely communicating with one another and because of their silence, have never been able to move on with their lives or reconcile their differences. Having decided that he can no longer bare to live with Shenkman and convinced that neither of his parents truly love him, Waldo decides to leave home in the middle of a freezing winter’s night. Unfortunately Mimi has also chosen this inclement time to have had her own moment of epiphany, so when the two meet by accident and are forced to seek shelter together, Waldo finds himself taking on the role of adult carer in the only way he knows how and one which will change his own life and those of both the Shenkman and Wilf families, forever.

Now, in 2020, with the Covid Pandemic at its peak and lockdown a worldwide phenomenon; Ben is living with Sarah and her family in California, Theo is busy feeding the less fortunate who have been laid off work during furlough and Waldo has finally returned home to be reconciled with his father, albeit that both know that this will probably be the final time they will be together.

This multi-layered storyline was very firmly rooted in the details and nuances of some wonderfully textured dialogue and narrative, so reading every word to keep the entire premise in context and perspective, was a must, although in no way onerous. I was therefore not quite as thrown as I might ordinarily have been, by the unmarked chapter breaks and non-signposted jumps back and forth between 1985 and 2020 and several time periods in between. Also, I’m not usually prone to showing or feeling much in the way of emotion, even in ‘real life’, so to evoke in me so many feelings from a work of fiction was definitely no mean feat on behalf of the author. Nor were events ever contrived to shock or upset by being larger than life, as I felt they truly reflected, with a compelling passion and profoundly touching honesty, the ‘behind closed doors’ scenarios of modern life and living in so many households right across the world.

The difficult discussions around mentally coercive and controlling mechanisms. The inevitable consequences on relationships when a secret so heavy to carry for a lifetime must be borne in silence, lest the pain of discussing it be too great. The unspoken fractures within a family where a daughter will always be the apple of her father’s eye, whilst a son will always be assured of his mother’s unwavering love. The silent and deadly disease of dementia, locking away a person’s mind, until theirs becomes the only true reality. The lengths a parent will go to, to protect their children. The manifestation and mental anguish of a parent unable to connect with a child who doesn’t fit into that perfect square box they imagined, causing uncommunicated love to be misconstrued as rejection.

If the events and locations were the thread which held this powerful and thought provoking story of contemporary fiction together, then the characters were definitely the very fabric of the saga, with them all being allowed plenty of time and space for their voices to be heard. Some I wanted to love, whilst others I couldn’t help but love to hate, they were all emotionally complex yet authentic, often unreliable and vulnerable, but always genuine and believable

Whilst the geographical physical footprint of the story was quite small, concentrated predominantly in the Avalon district of New York, there were also mentions of other areas within the State and across country in California. Many of the places mentioned were real and had been afforded some good attention to detail, which meant that I could research, plot walk and track the action for myself. So as an avid ‘armchair traveller’, I certainly wasn’t too disappointed.

Not a dry eye in this house!

Author Dani Shapiro doesn’t publish new fiction books on too regular a basis, however I shall definitely be sourcing some of her previous stories for my wish list.

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