Little Fires Everywhere (2017) – Celeste Ng

Title: Little Fires Everywhere
Author: Celeste Ng
Date published: 2017
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
Star Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
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I am so glad this was my first read of 2019! I have wanted to dive into it for almost 2 years and it was totally worth all the hype, and the wait I guess…

Little Fires Everywhere (2017) is like a cool drink of water on a hot day. In fact it is one of those novels that I am convinced I would have actually read in one sitting if I didn’t have so many other things to do in my day. This is quite rare for me as I much prefer to take a little bit of time with my reading. Celeste Ng is a divine storyteller, and appears to be brilliant at managing to capture the age old skill of oral tradition and giving it a place in modern literature. Her narrative takes on familiar themes of exile and dislocation due in part to her characters and it is her characters that are the most intriguing of all.

A suburban tale of interwoven tragedies, the story begins with the description of a place. A place called Shaker Heights where everything is meant to be perfect and planned (even down to the colour the ‘lucky’ resident’s paint their houses). In Shaker Heights live the Richardsons who consist of father and mother and the four children Lexie, Trip, Moody and Izzy. Beside their own big and expensive and perfect house they also own another house down the street that they often rent out to people that the Richardson matriarch, Elena (or mostly Mrs Richardson) deems suitable.

Our story begins with Mia and Pearl Warren moving into the Richardson’s spare house. It doesn’t take long before Mia’s teenage daughter Pearl befriends the Richardson children, and after school spends most afternoons sprawled on their family sofa watching Jerry Springer and other equally horrendous daytime talk shows of the late nineties. It is this so-called ‘normal’ family life that Pearl craves, and that she feels Mia was never really able to give as they moved around a lot. Mia, who is an artist but works casual jobs to pay the rent, soon finds herself being offered a job at the Richardsons as a cleaner much to Pearl’s horror. As time goes on Pearl feels more and more a part of the family, and even tries to imagine her life as a Richardson child. Izzy, the youngest Richardson child, on the other hand, becomes drawn to Mia’s free-spirited and liberal philosophies. She begins visiting Mia every day and helps her in her many artistic endeavors, and like Pearl imagines herself a part of another family, another life. Izzy is also the novel’s supposed ‘fire starter’ but it becomes clearer later on that she is just another link in a chain of fire starters. Her connection with Mia can best  be described by Mia’s response to Izzy’s behavior:

“Izzy… I’ll tell you a secret. A lot of times, parents are not the best at seeing their children clearly. There’s so much wonderful about you”. 

Besides Mia’s obvious rebelliousness towards pretty much everything and everyone, Celeste Ng’s novel is a veritable microcosm of rebellious women, and rebellious acts. Something I was not aware of until I read a couple of reviews online is the dedication on page 1: To those out on their own paths, setting little fires. I am grateful to those people’s reviews for making me aware of the enormity of this theme, of this dedication. The theme of rebellion has been absorbed by each and every main character in both minor and major ways, but in each one the spark is just as powerful.

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As Izzy and Pearl pretend to be living lives other than their own, their mother’s pasts make us aware that even past fires can become difficult to put out. Owing to Elena’s desperate need to unearth Mia’s past, it becomes more and more obvious that there is no escape from who we are. Her attempt to try and understand Mia’s lifestyle never quite works and at one point Mia confronts Elena with an accusation:

 “It bothers you doesn’t it?...I think you can’t imagine. Why anyone would choose a different life from the one you’ve got”.

Escaping from one’s past becomes even more evident in the case of an Asian baby who is found abandoned at a fire station. Shaker Heights becomes torn apart when a couple try to adopt it and the birth mother returns wanting to lay claim to her child again. As a reader and an observer both sides of this controversy become indicative of society’s need to instill only two sides to every story. One side is wrong and one side is right and even in the greyest of shades we realize how desperately small communities cling to their own versions of order amidst chaos.

Little Fires Everywhere is a superb little slice of suburban life, and Celeste Ng’s style of writing is the perfect anecdote to a reader who has been searching for a new voice and a new perspective.

“Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over”

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