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How Fires End

Winner of the 2020 Italian American Studies Association Book Award

2020 Connecticut Book Awards Finalist & Honorable Mention

A dark secret born out of World War II lies at the heart of a Sicilian American family in this emotional and sweeping saga of guilt, revenge, and, ultimately, redemption.

After soldiers vacate the Sicilian hillside town of Melilli in the summer of 1943, the locals celebrate, giving thanks to their patron saint, Sebastian. Amid the revelry, all it takes is one fateful moment for the destiny of nine-year-old Salvatore Vassallo to change forever. When his twin brothers are killed playing with an unexploded mortar shell, Salvatore’s faith is destroyed. As the family unravels, and fear ignites among their neighbors that the Vassallo name is cursed, one tragedy begets another.


Desperate to escape this haunting legacy, Salvatore accepts the help of an Italian soldier with fascist ties who ushers him and his sister, Nella, into a new beginning in America. In Middletown, Connecticut, in the immigrant neighborhood known as Little Melilli, these three struggle to build new lives for themselves. But a dangerous choice to keep their secrets hidden erupts in violence decades later. When Salvatore loses his inquisitive American-born son, David, they all learn too late the price sons pay for their fathers’ wars.


Written with elegiac prose, How Fires End delves into the secret wars of men; the sins they cannot bury; and a life lived in fear of who will reveal them, who will survive them, and who will forgive them.

Book Cover of How Fires End: A Novel

Available at your local independent bookstore or from these retailers:

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Named a Best Book of 2019 by Writer's Bone

Named a Best Book of 2020 by The Brooklyn Rail

Selected for the October 2019 Scribbler Box

Reviews & Praise

"Beautiful, mesmerizing, consoling, and under immaculate control, Marco Rafalà's How Fires End is a powerful novel about the religion we create for ourselves as we face that which perhaps even God has not imagined for humanity."

—Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh, The Queen of the Night, and How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

"Marco Rafalà ignites all kinds of fires in this brightly burning novel."

—Idra Novey, author of Those Who Knew and Ways to Disappear

"How Fires End is a raised fist of a novel, one filled with men’s brutal tenderness and tender brutality. It is both a subtle and powerful indictment of the silences between generations and a poignant testament to the bond between sons and fathers of all kinds. A blazing debut by an important new Italian-American voice.

—Christopher Castellani, author of Leading Men

“Rafalà seems to love language as much as his characters love their farms and their patron saint. That’s a powerful combination, and it fuels a compelling novel.”

New York Journal of Books

"[Rafalà] avoids Mafia tropes for a moving depiction of multigenerational loss and love, grief and gratitude, heartbreak and hope… in a drama that is akin to Greek tragedy: The behavior of the progenitors plays out in complicated and frequently tragic ways for the younger generations... in an arc that has the dramatic sweep of Aeschylus.”

—J.W. Bonner, Kirkus Reviews

“Marco Rafalà rouses us to applause with How Fires End. [T]he 'immigrant novel' has a smart and resourceful new proponent."

The Brooklyn Rail

"Marco Rafalà had this story in his bones. A moving family drama that takes plenty of risks."

Writer's Bone

“Remarkable multigenerational historical fiction.”

Historical Novels Review

"A true labor of love."

Italian America Magazine

"[A] story as old as the movement of people and the bellicose nature of humanity... told with refreshing compassion and poise..."

Times of Sicily

"[A] quintessential Italian American tale that excites us for what more may come from an author who is bound to be an established literary voice of the '80s generation."

Primo Magazine

"Absolutely breathtaking... a poignant reminder of the part history plays in all our lives."

Cultured Vultures

"How Fires End explores the complicated bind of family, attempting to answer the age old question of where family history ends and the self begins. This is a beautiful meditation on time, memory, and consequences."

—Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman

"How Fires End struck me at my core. Part mourning, part witness, this is a story that yearns to make peace with the endless, brutal wounds of war. It will haunt me with an unanswerable question: how do we heal from the pain of the unspoken when a family’s secrets are carried—across seas and generations—out of love and protection?”

—Natalia Sylvester, author of Everyone Knows You Go Home

and Chasing the Sun

"What happens when the fires we nurture with hate die? How Fires End is a breathtaking, multi-generational story of fathers and sons who yearn for warmth amid the ashes of their own secrets and lies. Generous, bold, epic, Marco Rafalà's novel is a triumph."

—Brando Skyhorse, award-winning author of The Madonnas of Echo Park and Take This Man: A Memoir

"Marco Rafalà’s How Fires End is a devastating and gorgeously conceived novel of tragedy and redemption spanning generations and continents. The past is never the past for the Vassallo family; it stalks and curses their lives, first in Sicily and then decades later in America. Heartbreaking and beautifully wrought, Rafalà’s haunting debut is a must-read exploration of the perils of personal and political histories and how we try to overcome them."

—Hannah Lillith Assadi, author of Sonora

"This multilayered, astonishing novel takes you into the heart of a dark family legacy and twists you up with emotion on every page. How Fires End is beautifully written and startling in its revelations. I can't stop thinking about this heart-breaking book."

—Crystal King, author of Feast of Sorrow and The Chef's Secret

"Marco Rafalà speaks to the Sicilian-American experience as no other since his fellow of The New School, Mario Puzo. He writes with care, wisdom, and compassion."

—John Reed, author of A Still Small Voice and

Free Boat: Collected Lies & Love Poems

"A haunting debut novel that shows us how the dark secrets of the old country can never be repressed. This is a poignant and powerful immigrants' tale of reckoning, tragedy and the search for redemption in a Sicilian family that learns it can never shed the claws of its past, even in this new American life."

—Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, author of Sarong Party Girls

"What happens when faith blinds us to our own humanity? How Fires End is part war story and aftermath, part mythology, a lamentation shot-through with melancholy and pathos. Rafalà writes of the mothers and fathers and sons and daughters of Melilli, Sicily, with such care and tenderness that to read it was like listening to the breathing out and collapse of an accordion—history folding over onto itself, sighing out a mournful story on notes of stone and stars. We yearn with David, grieve with Salvatore, shoulder the yoke of history with Vincenzo, console and heal with Nella, as each tells a story of wars waged, battles lost, and secrets kept."

—Susan Bernhard, author of Winter Loon

"A rich and unforgettable novel about heritage and loss, about our futures and our roots. How Fires End is intense and absorbing—a virtuoso performance by Marco Rafalà."

—Kristopher Jansma, author of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards

and Why We Came to the City

"How Fires End commences with such authority and grace that it hardly seems the work of a debut novelist. There is a great weight in the tenderness and simplicity of the voice of the narrators. It has gravitas without any sacrifice of beauty."

—Victoria Redel, author of Before Everything and Loverboy

"This is a wondrous novel that burns with secret histories, arcing across space and time, voiced by characters who speak their separate truths with resilience and dignity. A gorgeous debut."

—M Dressler, author of The Deadwood Beetle and The Last to See Me

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