A Review of When Fire Splits the Sky by Tyler James Russell

Published November 22, 2022 by Unsolicited Press.

Most people were first introduced to dissociative identity disorder (DID) when it was formerly called multiple personality disorder. The 1970’s book and movie Sybil brought the term into the mainstream, telling the story of a young woman’s diagnosis and treatment for DID. Recently, the A&E channel has aired Many Sides of Jane, a reality series about a single mother with two kids, to help destigmatize DID.

DID affects about 1% of the people in the United States. Most of them are women. The branching off of alternative identities (known as alters) in most cases stems from a childhood trauma like in Sybil, but it can also affect people who have faced assaults and other traumas as an adult. DID has not only been historically misdiagnosed, but the road from Sybil to Many Sides of Jane has seen missteps with DID commonly being sensationalized in the media. Along with a history of misrepresenting DID as schizophrenia, media depictions have also perpetuated the misconception that people with DID cannot live as functioning members of society. However, there has recently been a course correction on the portrayal of DID in the media. The new novel When Fire Splits the Sky by Tyler James Russell works to break down the past decades of stigmas through a character with dissociative identity disorder.

Russell chips away at public misconceptions of DID through one of his novel’s main characters living with the disorder, Maranda. Russell has done the research and accurately depicts when an alter appears, challenging misconceptions built by multiple thrillers trying to reach for the Norman Bates archetype. Unlike the main character in the Robert Bloch novel and Alfred Hitchcock film adaptation Pyscho, none of Maranda’s alters are secretly the killer in a murder to be solved on the last page, like how Mrs. Bates is revealed to actually be Norman. Zany performances by comedic actors in films like Me, Myself & Irene or Loose Cannons have also contributed to misconceptions of DID. However, Russell’s book does not play the mimicking guessing game of Maranda channeling characters from TV shows or movies, like how Dan Aykroyd acts like the cartoon Road Runner and does other impressions in Loose Cannons. Instead, this book differs by not only showing how Maranda’s alters were formed based on traumatic past events but how they have continued to protect her from reliving those traumas.

Before going forward, I must give the trigger warning that When Fire Splits the Sky addresses sexual assault, human trafficking, and animal abuse in addition to dealing with mental health awareness. It is in triggering situations like these that Russell depicts a person branching off into alters to protect themselves. Childhood trauma and sex trafficking are common in the backgrounds of people with DID, and both are factors in Maranda’s past. The book opens with Maranda confronting her husband Ben on his infidelity, followed by an unknown natural disaster of unprecedented biblical proportions hitting the area. The combination of triggers—Maranda discovering her husband has been cheating in addition to the world literally falling apart around them—causes Ben to see many of Maranda’s alters for the first time.

With mental health awareness front and center, Russell’s book uses alternating chapters between Ben and Maranda to help show how they are strangers to one another as a married couple. Still early in their marriage, Ben had met only one of Maranda’s alters during a confrontation about the state of their marriage. As Ben reflects in one of his chapters, “Their first anniversary was only a month ago, in June. Jesus, had they really only known each other a year and a half? They were practically strangers.” They are a couple in the beginning of the book, but their marriage is not yet a partnership. Reading on in the book, you see how apocalyptic Ben’s cheating was, in addition to the onset of the actual apocalypse, as Ben meets most of Maranda’s alters. A major part of the book is Ben not only being introduced to but also learning what it means to be married to someone with DID. Ben being caught allows the couple to put all their truths on the table instead of hiding their secrets from one another. The book then sends them on the run, not away from but towards better understanding one another.

At its heart, When Fire Splits the Sky is about marriage, what gets us to connect with a person, and more importantly what helps us to stay in a marriage. The novel is about letting go of one’s secrets to truly know another person and form a union. When we first meet Ben and Maranda, they still have separate bank accounts and are still in a dating mindset. The couple goes on to confront not only Maranda’s difficult past, but also Ben’s, showing that marriage is made up of the foxholes you go through together. Ben had a scarred relationship with his father which he never spoke to his wife about. Throughout the book, we witness this couple having their first in-depth conversations, learning to communicate and lean on one another.

 While the book is a fast-paced read, as there is an apocalypse and action all around to test the characters, the quiet moments of this couple coming together are what won me over more than its grim and grittier moments. A person with dissociative identity disorder branches off into alters to protect the individual from incidents they are not ready to face. When Fire Splits the Sky is at its strongest when it is about Maranda and Ben facing each other with no secrets for the first time so they can face the world around them as husband and wife.

Dominic Loise

Dominic is a bookseller living in Chicago, Il., with his librarian wife and three rabbits. He is open about and advocates for mental health awareness in his writing. Before coming to Brink Literacy Project, Dominic was the Store Manager at Open Books, Chicago’s first literacy nonprofit bookstore. He was also on the planning committee and created virtual sessions for the Ray Bradbury Experience Museum.