LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng (Penguin Press, 2017)

220px-little_fires_everywhereWhen I first saw the cover of this book, it brought to mind the artwork for ‘Everything That Happens Will happen Today’ , an album by David Byrne and Brian Eno released in 2008. This association proved to be not so wide of the mark. David Byrne’s work with Talking Heads often cast a sardonic eye on suburban living. In ‘The Big Country’, for instance, he gazed down from an airplane at the neat houses and comfortable urban amenities below and concluded “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to”.

Celeste Ng is not quite so scathing in the way she presents Shaker Heights in Cleveland, Ohio but, equally, she is not blind to the faults of a community that smugly prides itself on having a plan for anything and doesn’t see race.

This is “a town built for cars and for people who had cars” and a place where “an un-mowed lawn would result in a polite but stern letter from the city”. Anything regarded as a flaw to the domestic perfection is regarded as a threat.

It is home to the Richardson family – Dad is a defense attorney, Mom is a local journalist and their four children are Lexie, Trip, Moody and Izzy who are, respectively, senior, junior, sophomore and freshman at a high school whose motto is “a community is known by the schools it keeps.”

220px-david_byrne_and_brian_eno_-_everything_that_happens_will_happen_today_album_cover

‘Everything That Happens Will happen Today’

Izzy, the youngest at 14, is the wild card; the black sheep who everyone assumes is responsible for burning down the family house (n.b. this is not a spoiler as it comes in the opening chapter). The novel charts the events leading to this act of arson.

The arrival of a single mother Mia and her daughter Pearl proves to be the main catalyst. Mia is a photographic artist who is not greatly interested in fitting in or abiding by the conventions of the community. She is not openly rebellious; it is enough that her attitude is different to that of her neighbours.

In contrast, Mrs. Richardson is a woman who might be regarded as a model citizen and a perfect mother . Of her we learn how she “had, her entire existence, lived an orderly and regimented life.”  Slowly but surely, Ng’s cleverly layered story shows how the fragile and superficial security of this carefully structured existence can unravel.

Fire is the key metaphor as illustrated in this passage: “Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never –could never –set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled.”  In other words, while fire provides warmth and security when carefully tended it also has a destructive potential.

It should be noted that the novel is more than simply a smart satire about perfection vs chaos; or convention vs rebellion. At its heart Ng sets out a series of moral dilemmas related to the theme of parenting in general and motherhood in particular. Central to this is the question: “What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?” It is safe to say that no man could have written this book. Only a woman could speak with such authority about mothers having to come terms with their “magical, marvelous, terrifying role.”

Mia ultimately provides the moral focus and the spark that ultimately leads to the Richardson house ending up in flames. She doesn’t set out to be provocative or contrary; it is enough that her approach to art is the same as her philosophy of life: “I don’t have a plan [……..]but then, no one really does, no matter what they say.” And as she explains to Izzy: ”sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over.”