Lionel Shriver on Celeste Ng’s novel Little Fires Everywhere
Though finely crafted, this mystery of a house fire leaves Lionel Shriver cold
Little Fires Everywhere Celeste Ng Little, Brown £14.99, pp352
In Shaker Heights, Ohio, one of America’s first planned communities, order and harmony are prized. The Asian American writer Celeste Ng’s having partially grown up there helps to ground her second novel, Little
Fires Everywhere, with a strong sense of place. Set in the 1990s (the decade is deftly pinned when the characters watch Jerry Springer), Shaker Heights is described as the sort of rectitudinous neighbourhood often portrayed in media versions of American suburbs in the 1950s.
Yet in fiction, there’s always trouble in Dodge. Ng begins with the affluent Richardsons, after someone has burned down their house. The three older kids immediately blame the younger girl – the family nut job, who is conspicuously missing. It’s an eye-catching opener, but it might not pay off. The problem isn’t the identity of the culprit, naturally withheld until the very end, but that the crime seems profoundly under-motivated.
Little Fires Everywhere is less about arson than babies. Ng constructs a three-ring circus, each subplot posing a moral quandary regarding an infant. 1) Close friends of the Richardsons have taken in a baby abandoned at a fire station, whom they hope to adopt. But the little girl’s Chinese mother has got her act together, and wants her daughter back. 2) Years before, the Richardson’s tenant, Mia, carried a child for an affluent but infertile couple, after manually inseminating herself with the man’s sperm. Yet she
began to form an attachment to the unborn child. 3) The older Richardson daughter gets pregnant by her unwitting boyfriend. Her family could afford to raise the baby, but a child would interfere with her forthcoming university education.
In each instance, whose rights and desires take precedence?
“It came, over and over, down to this,” Ng spells out, perhaps too explicitly. “What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?”
In case No 3, I wasn’t torn. I’m pro-choice and under-keen on teenage pregnancy, though other readers may feel differently. In the first and second cases, both opposing parties have a legitimate claim on the child, and one party will have to sacrifice for the other’s happiness. Ng deliberately sets poorer biological mothers against prosperous couples who might provide more opportunities, thus asking in whose custody a child is better off. The trouble was that I didn’t care. I have struggled with this review.
Little Fires Everywhere is well crafted. The characters are vividly drawn. The author manages a large cast, multiple points of view, and all three rings of her circus with grace and authority. The dynamics between siblings and within teenage romances ring true. The prose is supremely competent, and I didn’t mark a single line as weak – although, unusually, I underscored only one sentence in the whole novel (“The silence seemed to stretch itself out like taffy”) as being especially good.
Possibly this childless reviewer has something missing, and is therefore indifferent to stories about babies, with which readers who are parents will deeply engage. Alternatively, the novel itself may have something missing, although I strain to identify exactly what that is. Ironically – is it fire? The interwoven plots do not feel contrived, but they do feel designed. The temperature never seems to rise above 72 degrees fahrenheit. When all was said and done, I wasn’t sure this novel means anything. It has a theme. But does it have a point?
This could be the kind of fiction that many book buyers are looking for. It has all the requisite elements for a satisfying read, since “meaning something” may be elective. It’s likely to be well reviewed elsewhere; Ng’s debut, Everything I Never Told
You , won multiple awards. After all, my experience of reading this book was perfectly pleasant. But the world in which I read it would be indistinguishable from the one in which I didn’t. This is a variety of novel that unnerves me, because it’s extremely well done and yet I didn’t warm to it. So what’s my problem? Other lifelong fiction readers may have sometimes been visited by the same unsettling doubt: “There’s nothing wrong with this book. So maybe I just don’t like novels as much as I thought.” Lionel Shriver’s novella, The Standing Chandelier, is published by the Borough Press this month. To order Little Fires Everywhere for £12.74 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846
Celeste Ng’s new novel has ‘a strong sense of place’.