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‘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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‘Reservoir 13’ by Jon McGregor

Who: Jon McGregor is the author of four novels and a story collection. Reservoir 13 was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2017.

What: Reservoir 13 is a novel about a mystery, but is not itself a mystery novel. The book opens with a girl lost upon the moors of the rural English countryside. Nearby villagers anxiously search for the missing Rebecca, Becky or Bex, as she is sometimes known. Her disappearance would anchor the novel which unfolds over 13 years, during which life in the village carries on — people are drawn in, people leave; they fall in love, they fall apart; new lives are had, older ones die. The foxes, badgers and bugs observe their natural cycles, as do the birds, butterflies and bees. But the spectre of the missing girl remains in the collective psyche, appearing in dreams, hallucinations and memories.

Why: One of the finest novels we’ve read in recent memory, McGregor’s narrative structure ingeniously pulls the reader into the book. It’s incredibly meta and sets the reader up from the start to think that a mystery is there to be solved. There are hints and foreshadowing that the resolution is in the very next line, or paragraph, or page, or chapter. The reader is driven by this singular temptation, but meanwhile McGregor creates a lush, vivid background, ostensibly to contextualise the mystery. The man lies. He is not creating a background, but another, richer foreground that will supersede the mystery.

With his austere but elegant prose, his omniscient camera flits from scene to scene in his massive single paragraph structures, controlling the attention of the reader — first to the park keeper who is conducting his annual test of the river water, next to a group of teenagers drinking down a bottle of stolen wine, then to a farmhand who is necking with the parish council’s chair’s wife, and then to reports of sightings of the missing girl who may or may not be responsible for the various incidences of arson in the village. Each year that passes in the village is told within a chapter. The villagers grow a year older, perhaps not wiser, and the same narrative device is repeated to remind readers that though everything is different, it is nevertheless the same.

This may sound a painful and clumsy attempt to stall the progress of the plot; on the contrary, the reader soon finds these secondary arcs to be more important than the resolution of the missing girl. How does Irene deal with an abusive special-needs son? Will the Jackson boys’ flock survive the winter? Will the career-minded Su Cooper adjust to being the mother of rambunctious twin boys? It is these moments in the lives of these villagers — arrayed as a field of snapshots of many separate but interconnected moments — that carry the readers’ sympathies. Resolution, he reminds us, is not found within the solving of a grand mystery, but in the consummation of each individual moment in our lives.

Best/Worst Line: ‘The girl’s name was Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex. She had been looked for everywhere… There were dreams about finding her on the night she went missing, stumbling across her on the moor in the lowering dark and helping her back to her parents. In the dreams the parents said thank you, briefly, and people muttered something about it being no problem at all.’

Verdict: Friggin’ incredible. It’s not a perfect 10 because readers stubbornly clinging on to the need for plot development (a justifiable need, in our opinion) may be frustrated by this book. (9/10)

Availability: Trade paperback, RM79.90.