In the opening chapter of ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ by Celeste Ng, the Richardson family home in the affluent suburb of Shaker Heights near Cleveland, Ohio, is burning to the ground in a fire believed to have been started deliberately by their rebellious daughter, Izzy. The story looks back at the events which led to this catastrophe, ultimately beginning when the Richardsons’ tenant, Mia Warren, becomes a part-time housekeeper for the family and Mia’s fifteen-year-old daughter Pearl, befriends the Richardson teenage siblings Lexie, Trip, Moody and Izzy.
I really enjoyed reading Ng’s debut novel Everything I Never Told You in 2014 and her second novel is an ambitious step forward in terms of scope, structure and character development. ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ revolves around three interconnected storylines about parenthood concerning abortion, surrogacy and adoption. The adoption storyline involves a case which divides the whole community, in which family friends of the Richardsons attempt to claim custody of a Chinese baby abandoned at a fire station by Bebe, one of Mia’s colleagues at her other part-time job at a restaurant. To say which characters are directly implicated in the other plot strands would be to reveal too much too soon, but Ng thoughtfully addresses the knotty debates surrounding race, social class, age and privilege in each situation, skilfully untangling them from several different perspectives and sensitively laying out the facts and the context to show that there are no real winners or easy solutions. The mid to late 1990s setting is brilliantly portrayed as a relatively recent yet innocent time before the ubiquity of social media and smartphones, allowing the characters to keep secrets from each other for much longer than they would be able to today.
The fire metaphors may not be subtle but they are numerous and very apt, from Mia’s disregard for conformity and “scorched earth” policy whenever she moves away in stark comparison to Mrs. Richardson’s repressed “spark” and her belief that “Rules existed for a reason: if you followed them, you would succeed; if you didn’t, you might burn the world to the ground.” The whole plot arc itself is something of a slow-burn as the story tends to go off on long tangents exploring the back stories of several characters, notably Mia’s mysterious past as well as some intriguing background concerning Elena, who Ng pointedly refers to from a distance as “Mrs. Richardson” throughout much of the story.
‘Little Fires Everywhere’ is an excellent novel with outstanding characterisation which has earned itself a last minute entry on my books of the year list. Many thanks to Little, Brown Book Group for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.