This book has such an interesting premise: There's a boarding house that's caught on fire while its tenants sleep, and they will all die. But as the smoke and flames overtake them, each one, in his or her own way, reflects on points of their lives that were meaningful and formative. As they're dying, we, as the reader, get to know what's really at their core, at the heart of who they were.
It's also a treatise on memory, one of my favorite topics, and whether or not individual human beings have any type of existence after death. Not in terms of heaven/hell/reincarnation, but something more mysterious. The epigraph, from On Balance by Adam Phillips, sets the tone: "Just as there are phantom limbs there are phantom histories, histories that are severed and discarded, but linger on as thwarted possibilities and compelling nostalgias." As it turns out, the residents of this boarding house have greatly varied backgrounds: failed priest, neurosurgeon, photographer, naturalist, retired teacher, all of which give the author room to explore a great deal. (Although I still raise my eyebrows at the idea of a successful neurosurgeon in the first half of his career, living in a run-down boarding house.)
I've not read anything by author Thubron before, although a little Googling turned up the fact that he's an accomplished and respected travel writer. That shines through in this book. Many of the narratives take place in far-flung locales: Africa, India, Greece. Thubron fills these scenes with lavish details that puts the writer right there.
But sometimes, the travel writing overwhelmed the actual story being told. At times I found myself impatient to get through the extensive place descriptions and back to the character and what was happening. More than once, the author begins a chapter in a close third person, then partway through switches to first person. That broke the fictional spell for me each time it happened, and when it happened more than once, it became irksome. Then there are hints of connections between these characters that aren't fully explored, and an ending which suddenly has a more metaphysical tone.
So, I read the whole thing, which means I liked it well enough to not walk away from it, but in the end, the sum was not greater than the pieces.