‘Little Fires Everywhere’ by Celeste Ng

Who: American Chinese author Celeste Ng’s much anticipated sophomore effort, Little Fires Everywhere, is the winner of the Goodreads Choice Award 2017 for fiction. It follows her standout debut, Everything I Never Told You.

What: The story begins with a literal fire, whereby someone has deliberately set ablaze the Richardson house, situated in Shaker Heights, an affluent neighbourhood. The reader is then taken back in time to reveal the history of the Richardson household, as well as mother-daughter pair Mia and Pearl Warren, who have taken up residence at a rental owned by the Richardsons. Their worlds mingle in unexpected ways but eventually collide as they find themselves on opposing sides when an old friend of the Richardsons tries to adopt a Chinese-American baby.

Why: The story plays out a bit like a soap but without the sordidness. While Ng takes her time to tell the story, it by no means drags on as she drops tantalising clues throughout the book to make this an engrossing read. Although the characters are not unfamiliar — the picture-perfect suburban Richardson family versus the enigmatic artist, Mia, and her teenage daughter — the nuanced manner in which Ng paints these portraits make them compelling.

At the centre of the intersection of these lives is the youngest Richardson, Izzy, torn between the two worlds on offer: a structured, rule-abiding life of security and stability, and a free-spirited, nomadic one that can promise little but nevertheless is more meaningful and substantial. Fundamental values rub up against one another leading to an inevitable clash of worlds, which in turn spark ‘little fires everywhere’. That these sparks would set something smouldering further deep inside that would potentially turn into a raging inferno becomes the tipping point of the novel.

It isn’t quickly apparent, but at the heart of the story is an examination of what it means to be a mother and the bonds that bind. The decision to follow or not follow one’s passions and where that inevitably leads, for better or worse, is also a thread in the book.

Best/Worst Line: “All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control.”

Verdict: Ng is a deft storyteller, pulling the reader in from the get-go. (8/10)

Availability: Trade paperback, RM72.90.

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