“The firemen said there were little fires everywhere,” Lexie said. “Multiple points of origin. Possible use of accelerant. Not an accident.” (pg. 11)
Over the last few months, the literary media has been gushing about Celeste Ng’s second novel Little Fires Everywhere. Once again, her work has climbed its way onto several bestseller lists and was chosen as the 2017 Goodreads book of the year. So, what IS this hype about, anyway?
When Izzy Richardson burns her childhood house down, both her family and the gossiping residents of Shaker Heights – a quiet, pragmatic suburb in Ohio – suspect that something was a bit off about Izzy all along. However, as Ng leads us through the maze of each character’s history, we see that there is far more to the story than she originally suggests. Who, REALLY is to blame, we wonder. Is it Mia Warren, the enigmatic, bohemian artist putting the “shake” in Shaker Heights? Or is it Mrs Richardson, Izzy’s obsessively orderly and single-mindedly privileged mother? Ng’s narrative shows us the little fires everywhere, the sparks of change each character must navigate as they race toward (or race to prevent) the eventual literal and figurative conflagration.
“Whether you buy a homesite in the School Section, broad acres in the Shaker Country Estates, or one of the houses offered by this company in a choice of neighbourhoods, your purchase includes…protection forever against depreciation and unwelcomed change” – Advertisement, The Van Sweringen Company, Creators and Developers of Shaker Village. (pg 4)
Ng, a former resident of Shaker Heights, uses her intimate knowledge of the setting to critique the Shaker philosophy. Before starting the official narrative, she included a real-estate advertisement which promised Shaker residents that they would be forever free from “unwelcomed change”. She immediately contrasts this with the house fire, proving that change will always happen; spontaneity is inevitable.
Even though these contrasts show Ng’s critical eye, her style avoids direct criticism. Instead, she uses an almost objective, omniscient voice to explain each character’s experiences in contrast to another’s. She orders the chaos of their extensive, intermingling backgrounds to show us their complete, individual – and oftentimes astonishing – truths. She then uses these truths to show us how this history shapes each character’s ideology, which in turn influences the actions that drive the plot forward.
One critic argues that Little Fires Everywhere there is very little to take away from the novel. I disagree. The book forces us to step back and narrow our apertures to bring the full tapestry of human experience in detailed focus. Ng’s presentation of her universe allows us to judge each character more holistically, rather than criticising the little we see when we zoom in and focus only on their actions in the present. Everyone has a history, and our limited perspective prevents us from seeing a person’s most authentic self. Ng suggests that we should probably be little more empathic as we interact with those around us.
Little Fires Everywhere is a marvellous book written with meticulous attention to detail. The characters feel real: they anger, amuse and sadden us as we watch them navigate their lives, half-blind. It makes for an incredible read, the kind that makes you want to start the book from scratch to put all the pieces together a second time. Is the hype worth it? Absolutely! If you love contemporary adult fiction and need something to pluck at your heartstrings, Ng’s newest novel will be an incredible choice.