In my blog post, ‘The Thinning of the Veil’, I did somewhat commit to exclusively reading scary or bloodthirsty literature for the forthcoming weeks. In error though, I started with ‘The Woman in Black’, and thought perhaps I could have a little comfort break already with Celeste NG’s second novel, ‘Little Fires Everywhere’. My friend Sarah did lend this to me a few weeks ago, so I did also think I should read and return it. So really, I’m not being a wimp; I’m being a responsible friend…
However, Little Fires Everywhere was not anything like a comfortable read. It’s a superb novel though. Matt Haig (of whom I am a big fan), described it as ‘a masterclass in characterisation’, and as usual, he’s dead right.
It starts with a postscript chapter, where we discover that a fire has been deliberately set in the Richardson family home, leaving this previously affluent family with the clothes on their backs and nothing much more. No-one has been hurt, but their youngest child, Izzy, has gone missing.
The book is set in Shaker Heights, an affluent suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, which is a community set up to be a form of utopia for its inhabitants. Founded on Shaker values of order, regulation and uniformity, it was designed to be ‘a patch of heaven on earth, a little refuge from the world’. Up until the 1960s, this patch of heaven was reserved for a white community; afterwards it became inclusive, although still essentially a symbol for white privilege, and this comes across effectively as a theme in this novel.
The plot centres around two families; the Richardsons, a large, affluent family, and the Warrens. Elena Richardson, a journalist, philanthropically places the Warrens, Mia and her daughter, Pearl, in her small downtown rental apartment block. There are glaring differences in these families’ outlooks, incomes and attitudes, yet the children of both families intertwine so much, that the lines between them all become quickly blurred. Little fires are lit.
The imagery of little fires is intelligently spread through the text. It’s like the butterfly effect, where the butterfly slowly flaps wings of smouldering embers, throwing sparks out along with the ripples. Some sparks will fade away to nothing, either mercifully or tragically. Others may form flames which can be carefully controlled, regulated and passed on like an Olympic torch. Some could burn down the world.
Above all else though, this is a novel predominantly about motherhood. Is it a bond forged by blood, or love, or both? Who is deserving of being a mother; are there rules to be followed, and who sets them? Clearly, there are going to be no simple answers, and all the central characters, as in life, are getting it simultaneously right and wrong.
I should have read this faster than I did; it’s certainly absorbing enough, but I had to take a day out. Around halfway through, I suddenly felt as though I had been seized and had a mirror slammed in front of my face, forcing me to confront myself as a person, and particularly as a mother. I felt I had to try to understand which little fires of my own I may have set, both in my triumphs as a mum, and in my many failures. You hope to ignite flames of passion, so that your children become everything that they want and to achieve what they can. But what harm do you do along the way? Have I, during the course of my 40 years on the planet, set fires which have harmed other people, however inadvertently or ignorantly? During the day in which I couldn’t read any more, I was caught up in this reflection, and atypically for me, I cried my heart out.
Such can be the power of a book. I hope I’ve learned something.
I did find that in the earlier stages of the book, I formed opinions about the characters, which unravelled completely in later chapters. There is no good or bad here, just a mass of grey areas. It’s fairly rare to feel the rush of empathy that I did for all of them. They were living, breathing entities for me, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget this book. It did, and will affect me for a while yet.
I haven’t read ‘Everything I Never Told You, the author’s first novel, but I will be looking for it in the near future. I really do recommend ‘Little Fires Everywhere’, but readers should be aware for the potential for it to take its emotional pound of flesh. Not just if you are a reflective type like me, but because it tackles difficult themes; motherhood, ethics, displacement and loss.
And if you like a cozy read with a happy ending, this one might not be for you!