Questions about the mental health of the ‘leader of the free world’ have been swirling around on social media, the #MeToo movement seems to be gaining traction, racist, xenophobic and sexist fires are raging everywhere and the status quo seems to be wobbling. Amidst this chaotic and dizzying state of affairs in post-Trump United States comes Little Fires Everywhere, an intense psychological thriller by Celeste Ng that transports you back to one of the earliest planned communities in 1990s’ America. It is a world where people don’t “see race” and where teenagers sprawled on their plush living-room couches watch reality television and communicate through pagers.
In this new work, Ng’s second novel after her best-selling debut Everything I Never Told You, the author takes readers to Shaker Heights, an upscale locale situated in Cleveland that comes furnished with all the accoutrements of socio-economic affluence, as proclaimed by an advertisement in the book’s epigraph: manicured lawns, neat driveways, golf and tennis clubs, boating and “unexcelled schools.” Peaceful, insanely ordered and progressive, the world of Shaker Heights is unruffled by wars, protests or riots in the country, let alone the presidential family’s steamy scandals in the White House.
The reader’s attention is captivated upfront; the book opens with the Richardson family — affluent residents of this affluent neighbourhood — watching a raging fire swallow their house. A few pages in we learn that the fire is not an accident: “The firemen said there were little fires everywhere … Multiple points of origin. Possible use of accelerant.”
The youngest and most erratic of the Richardson brood, Izzy, has gone missing and is suspected to be the culprit, but she is not the only suspect. Elena Richardson’s tenants — a vagabond artist named Mia Warren and her teenage daughter, Pearl — had just vacated the house up on Winslow Road the previous night. The remainder of the novel goes back in time to uncoil the events leading up to this catastrophe and reveal the person behind the act, adding to the list of suspects in the process.
For Elena, an ambitious journalist obsessed with morals, ethics, rules and leading the ideal life, Mia, with her hippie lifestyle, fatherless family and enigmatic charm, represents a threat to the orderly world of Shaker Heights. However, the lives of Mia and her daughter become entwined with those of Elena’s family as Pearl forges intimate friendships with the Richardson children and Mia takes up a job as their housekeeper at Elena’s insistence, whose generosity and kindness seems to border on manipulation.
The arrival of the Warrens completely alters the dynamics of both the families. Soon Mia and Elena find themselves on the opposite sides of a custody battle involving their close friends, a controversy that divides the entire town.
A few chapters into the novel, the title starts to feel a little misleading as the initial mystery of who set the fire somewhat takes a backseat and the author delves into themes of class privilege, race, motherhood, abortion and family: “It came, over and over, down to this: What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?”
Even so, one is compelled to keep reading, not only with the curiosity of a reader hooked on to the story, but with a kind of voyeuristic appetite as the story dives into the deceptively smooth waters of this seemingly perfect world to reveal dysfunctional families. Ng exhibits great care and intimacy here; the story is interspersed with some heart-rending scenes, satire and witty and wise observations, the kind that make you want to underline them or jot down in a notebook. One of my most favourite was, “But the problem with rules … was that they implied a right way and a wrong way to do things. When, in fact, most of the time there were simply ways, none of them quite wrong or quite right, and nothing to tell you for sure which side of the line you stood on.”
Fire features in the novel less as a central part of the story and more as a symbol of those ‘sparks’, or selves, that some of the characters, such as Elena, have repressed to fit into their orderly and disciplined world; in a particularly tense encounter between her and Mia, Mia tries to tease it out of Elena: “It terrifies you. That you missed out on something. That you gave up something you didn’t know you wanted… What was it? Was it a boy? Was it a vocation? Or was it a whole life?”
The narrative is cleverly and intricately plotted, much like the world of Shaker Heights itself. However, although at certain points one finds the story becoming too predictable, it does not disappoint because all the inhabitants of this little neighbourhood are so intriguing. Each character is meticulously sketched out with detailed backstories and even the minor ones — the bailiff, the chef, the bus driver — are accompanied by brief details and little anecdotes.
Little Fires Everywhere is clever and entertaining, all the more so for it employs a structural trope in a very novel way and manages to pack a lot of action, meaning and drama in a very short space. Fans of psychological mysteries will adore this read.