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LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE, Celeste Ng’s new novel, builds on the extraordinary success of her debut Everything I Never Told You. It opens with a momentous event: a house fire in the seemingly idyllic Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights where everything runs to order. The house in question belongs to Mr and Mrs Richardson, model citizens of the community.

‘The firemen said there were little fires everywhere,’ says their daughter, Lexie. ‘Multiple points of origin. Possible use of accelerant. Not an accident.’ And her absent sister, troublesome Izzy, is the person everyone thinks set those little fires.

Izzy isn’t the only one missing from the scene, though. Mia Warren and her daughter, Pearl, also aren’t present. They left town that day. But why? Thus Ng’s novel opens posing some important questions and from this point she trails back, allowing us insight into the events that led up to the fire.

Shaker Heights is a progressive, affluent suburb where everything is meticulously planned – from the colours of the house paint to the height of the grass. It is a ‘peaceful’ community, where ‘riots and bombs and earthquakes’ are ‘quiet thumps, muffled by distance’ and it’s where Ng grew up in the 1990s, also when the book is set. Appearance is everything – or as Ng puts it, ‘you are not to show anyone your messy side’. The apparent perfection of everyday life masks tension and unresolved issues though.

Mrs Richardson – rarely is she Elena in the book – owns a duplex in Winslow Road, inherited from her parents. She wants to do good and rents the apartments to people she feels are deserving. The downstairs is tenanted by Mr Yang, a Hong Kong immigrant, suitably thankful to the Richardsons. He pays an unofficial ‘tithe’ of homegrown Chinese melons which Mrs Richardson accepts, even though she has absolutely no idea what to do with them. The upstairs apartment has proved more difficult to rent and it’s to here that artist and single mother Mia and 15-year-old Pearl move.

With her multi-ringed fingers, battered VW Rabbit and blatant disregard for Shaker Heights’ rules, Mia is an anomaly, the polar opposite to Mrs Richardson who has done everything ‘right’ and built ‘the kind of life she wanted, the kind of life everyone wanted’. Mrs Richardson finds her new lodger fascinating, unsettling and mysterious and when their children become friends, they, in turn, befriend each other’s children. Izzy, the youngest Richardson, is the maverick, the cuckoo in the nest; she finds Mia’s free-spirited ways and lack of concern for order appealing. Pearl, in contrast, is desperate for stability and security after a life of roaming America with Mia; thus, the Richardsons’ conformity and sense of exactness seem attractive.

Matters come to ahead when a custody battle starts one of the many small fires that burn throughout the book, the points of origin in this case race, class, wealth. The Richardsons’ friends, the McCulloughs, are in the throes of finalizing a transracial adoption of a one-year-old girl which is challenged by the birth mother. A Chinese immigrant, Bebe Chow abandoned her baby while suffering from postpartum depression, but now she wants her back. Battle lines are quickly drawn in Shaker Heights, as well as between Mia and Mrs Richardson.

Ng challenges the accepted belief that no one ‘sees race’ in the community through carefully constructed, uncomfortably comic scenes, such as when Bebe’s lawyer asks Lydia McCullough how she will keep the child connected to her Chinese heritage and her response is: ‘Pearl of the Orient is one of our very favourite restaurants. We try to take her there once a month.’

As with Ng’s first novel, this is an impeccably written, pared-back book, the pace moderated, each word seemingly chosen for maximum impact. In this, it brings to mind a much-loved classic, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, in which the minutiae of small town life and the issues of parent–child love and race are all handled so beautifully.

After sterling reviews in the States, the accolades for the book keep rolling in and it’s no wonder Reese Witherspoon’s company has optioned its rights and Little, Brown brought forward the UK release date here. Certainly, we loved it and along with Jane Harper’s The Dry, Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere is genuinely one of the best pieces of fiction we’ve read in a very long time.

Read it. Read it. Read it.

 

Little Fires Everywhere | Celeste Ng | Little, Brown | 9 November 2017 | Hardback | £16.99

 

 

Credits: Quoted text: Copyright © 2017 by Celeste Ng. This review is published as part of the Little, Brown blog tour. Thank you to Grace Vincent, publicity manager at Little, Brown, for supplying the cover image and review copy. Please see the other reviews below.

 

 


Also of interest:
Jane Harper’s stylish debut – The Dry‘; To Kill a Mockingbird (1962 trailer); An Alaskan epic – Rosamund Lupton’s The Quality of Silence‘; ‘The beauty of Sara Taylor’s The Shore’; ‘How Penguin learned to fly – Allen Lane and the Original “Penguin Ten”’; Dorothy L. Sayer’s Busman’s Holiday – Romek Marber for Penguin Crime (book covers we love).

This review is © 2017 by The Literary Shed. All rights reserved. We welcome your feedback and comments. If you wish to reproduce this piece, please do request permission. Thank you so much.

 

 

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