Sometimes you begin reading the first page of a novel and immediately feel immersed in the story, not as if it is being told to you, but rather that you have become an integral part of the story itself. Little Fires Everywhere (Little, Brown 2017) by Celeste Ng is such a novel, drawing the reader directly into the heart of the action and the emotion, making us feel not only that this is a place with which we are familiar, but that it is a place in which we belong. Celeste Ng sustains this feeling of similitude for the entire book, until by the last page we experience that desperate feeling that we are leaving friends and saying goodbye to those close to us. I finished this book with a terrible pang. I connected with the characters, and I empathised with their moral ambiguities and the choices they faced. This is a remarkable novel on many levels.
It begins with a house fire in the normally safe and quiet community of Shaker Heights, Cleveland, a place where residential and infrastructure planning has resulted in a meticulous and tidy society bound by rules and expectations. As the Richardson house burns to the ground, some of the Richardson family members stand and watch, while one is conspicuously absent, and we wonder how on earth this tragedy could have been precipitated. And then the real story begins, a year earlier, when the Richardson’s let their rental house to the enigmatic artist, Mia Warren and her teenage daughter, Pearl. Mr and Mrs Richardson are pillars of the community and beyond reproach. Their four adolescent children – charming Trip, beautiful Lexie, placid Moody and quirky Izzy – come under the spell of Mia, to varying degrees, and the two families become entangled in a number of different ways. When Mr Richardson (a lawyer) represents family friends embroiled in a mixed-race adoption scandal, both families are divided as sides are chosen and lines drawn. Mrs Richardson is determined to use her journalistic skills to uncover Mia’s hidden past, and the five children become inextricably linked in a web of deceit, secrets, betrayal and desire.
Reading this story is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. You know a tragedy is going to unfold, although you can’t know the details, but your creeping feeling of impending doom looms larger and larger, with misunderstandings and secrets complicating the narrative. All the separate and distinct plot lines begin to merge and blur as the author expertly manipulates the situation into a shocking – and yet somehow also entirely inevitable – conclusion. When the ending comes, it is surprising, and yet we realise that it could not have ended any other way.
Celeste Ng’s exploration of the parent / child bonds is tender, compassionate and true. She deftly examines the heartrending yearning for a child, the protective love of a toddler, and the shifting emotions of the navigation of parenting an adolescent. The parents – and the children – in this book are flawed and flailing. Like the best books, this story presents us as readers with a morally ambiguous situation and asks us what we would do in each character’s place, and like the best books, we find it increasingly difficult to choose a position, because there is no right answer and no correct choice. At one point, Mrs Richardson ponders that her own daughter would not ever have to make a certain decision because ‘she wouldn’t put herself in that position’ but of course the book teaches us that any of us could end up in any position, and there is absolutely no way to judge how we would react until and unless we have walked in that person’s shoes. The story considers unfit mothers and overprotective mothers, desperate mothers and complacent mothers, determined mothers and fierce mothers. It considers what makes a family, and how a family might be created from the people with whom you choose to surround yourself. It is also a story about art, and how art shapes a person; how the creation of art can mimic a life.
This novel would be a perfect bookclub choice, with lots of discussion points. Novels like this demonstrate the power of writing to evoke emotions. As a writer, I admire the expert handling of this story in skilled hands. As a reader, I am still thinking about the characters … not as characters in a story, but as people I have met and shared time with, who have now gone on to another chapter in their lives … I’m thinking about them and wondering if they’re okay.