Lionel Shriver on Ce­leste Ng’s novel Lit­tle Fires Ev­ery­where

Though finely crafted, this mys­tery of a house fire leaves Lionel Shriver cold

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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 guardian­book­ or call 0330 333 6846

Robert Gumpert/Guardian

Ce­leste Ng’s new novel has ‘a strong sense of place’.

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