The Light of the Fireflies by Paul Pen [Book Review]

Loretta Oliver
6 min readMay 25, 2021

I want to start by mentioning that The Light of the Fireflies as I’m reading it is a translation from another language. I do think the translation was done very well, the sentence structure and word order all make sense and flows well for the most part. I’ve read some translations in the past that were just plain confusing and frustrating in their English versions, so bonus points for this.

Book summary from Amazon: A haunting and hopeful tale of discovering light in even the darkest of places.

For his whole life, the boy has lived underground, in a basement with his parents, grandmother, sister, and brother. Before he was born, his family was disfigured by a fire. His sister wears a white mask to cover her burns.

He spends his hours with his cactus, reading his book on insects, or touching the one ray of sunlight that filters in through a crack in the ceiling. Ever since his sister had a baby, everyone’s been acting very strangely. The boy begins to wonder why they never say who the father is, about what happened before his own birth, about why they’re shut away.

A few days ago, some fireflies arrived in the basement. His grandma said, There’s no creature more amazing than one that can make its own light. That light makes the boy want to escape, to know the outside world. Problem is, all the doors are locked. And he doesn’t know how to get out…

One thing that sort of bothered me is that no one in this story has a name. Everyone is nameless. The boy. Father. Mother. Brother. Sister. Grandmother. Grandfather. The baby (sometimes referred to as nephew). At certain parts of the story, it would have been much easier to follow if everyone just had a name.

Then to call further attention to the lack of names, at one point one of his siblings refers to the boy as “the boy” and one of the parents says, “He has a name you know.” Well, no, no we don’t know, because you didn’t tell us anyone’s name. It’s not a big deal, but it did sort of drive me crazy at several points throughout the book. I think it might be an attempt to dehumanize the people, or maybe the author just doesn’t like names, I can’t be sure.

The majority of the book is being told from the point of view of a 10-year-old boy. This part of the story is the most captivating, and there are times you have to wonder if something is real or imagined because everything is from a child’s point of view, and not just a child but a very imaginative child that has been sheltered from the outside world and knows only the few rooms that he lives in with very little sunlight, his own mind, and his immediate family members.

Things start to get a little rocky in the boy’s world. His sister, who is forced to always wear a mask especially when he is present, gives birth to a baby. It’s not difficult to do the equation here … no one leaves the basement, no one enters the basement, and only family members live in the basement. When the boy starts to ask questions about where the baby came from and who the father is, the family just changes the subject and avoids talking about it.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it, there are some disturbing things throughout this story and the baby is just one example of that. Some things are described and others are simply implied. There were a few times I put the book down, walked away, and wasn’t sure I wanted to continue reading to find out the rest of this family’s story.

In the middle of the book, a chapter ends with the sister taking off her mask and the boy realizing his family hasn’t been honest with him about anything. Then the narrative shifts. We go back 11 years ago, before the family went underground, and we start to piece together what happened and why these people are harboring such anger, fear, and resentment. Things get a little more disturbing and we start to learn why they’re hiding from the world in this locked basement. A series of horrible tragedies and bad choices that led to their isolated life.

We finally learn where the family’s supplies are really coming from (because none of them ever leave the basement). We learn more about the brother and sister — who by the way are not children as you might think when you start the story, they’re actually very adult in age. We learn more about the fire that caused the scars and injuries to the family members. This entire part of the story is somewhat difficult and a bit disturbing.

It’s at this point in the story I found myself angry with the family. The whole lot of them. Bad choices. Lies. Abusive words and actions. With my Kindle telling me I was only three-quarters of the way done with the book, I put it down again and wondered if I really wanted to finish it. I figured I had come this far, maybe there would be some smidgen of good at the end of the story.

I also pause here to say I found it at this point to be the sister’s story more than the boy’s story. Maybe it was her story all along. I’m not sure why so much of the book is focused on viewing things from the 10-year-old’s point of view, but I think it’s so you can find the only speck of innocence in the whole thing and feel some small emotional connection to someone when you start getting into the details of what has happened.

I certainly don’t want to give away too much detail or reveal the ending in any way… so I’m not going to talk much about the last quarter of the book.

After this lengthy flashback (it’s about one-quarter of the book) we return to the basement and the time frame of “present” and the words outside and escape are being tossed around by the boy and his sister…. though I have to say I’m not sure what decade this story is set in. Is the present now, somewhere between 2000 and 2016? The way the family treats the daughter and speaks of her is generally awful and they clearly value the lives of their sons over their daughter throughout. This was another one of the things that bothered me about the story.

We’re in “the present” for almost the whole last quarter of the book, except the very last chapter where we visit 15 years later and the 10-year-old boy is speaking to us as an adult. The last chapter of “the present” and then the final chapter of the book are the big wrap-ups to tie all the pieces together. A lot of it seems to be in effort to explain away situations and decisions made by the family as in the best interest of everyone so the family could stay together always, but chances are you’ll still come away angry and frustrated, or at least that’s how I felt about it.

So my final thoughts on the book…

A quick checklist of things inside The Light of the Fireflies;
one dysfunctional family, rape, murder, incest, lots of mental and emotional abuse, some physical abuse, darkness, fear, and questionable morals.

From beginning to end of this story you will be wondering if anyone in this story can be trusted, if there’s any truth or whole love anywhere in the boy’s world.

While the writing is fairly good and the author has a very descriptive style and a nice way of giving you an image in your mind, the story is frustrating and infuriating and disturbing. I couldn’t really relate to the characters in any way, and I honestly didn’t find the majority of their actions and decisions to be believable or to make sense, even when I looked at them through the lens of a parent who would do anything for their child. This is a disturbing level of dysfunctional family.

I understand there is a movie being made based on this novel right now.
I think I’m going to skip seeing that.

Have you read The Light of the Fireflies? I’d love to hear your thoughts as well. Please leave a comment below to discuss.

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Loretta Oliver

cross stitcher ✂, writer ✍️ , transcriptionist ⌨️, dabbler in all things creative ✂ , mom, wife, finder of lost shoes….