How to Set Your­self on Fire

Foreword Reviews - - Reviews - KAREN RIGBY

Ju­lia Dixon Evans Dzanc Books (MAY) Soft­cover $16.95 (312pp) 978-1-945814-50-1

How to Set Your­self on Fire is a brood­ing tale of mem­ory, emo­tional malaise, grief, and voyeurism. Lan­guorous, thirty-five-year old Sheila steals her dead grand­mother’s shoe box, filled with 382 letters, and dis­cov­ers a se­cret past. The cost is her own dis­en­chant­ment. This can­did por­trait of de­pres­sion ex­am­ines an “an­ces­try of pain and blame” with blis­ter­ing ef­fects.

At the start of the novel, Sheila is adrift in a Cal­i­for­nia rental. Haunted by her par­ents’ lon­gago sep­a­ra­tion, she is job­less and hold­ing fast to a few rem­nants that re­mind her of hu­man con­tact. These in­clude a fleet­ing ex­change with a UPS driver that blooms into one-sided ob­ses­sion, and over­heard con­ver­sa­tions be­tween her neigh­bor, Vin­nie, and his daugh­ter, Tor­rey. Bit­ing, fo­cused scenes re­veal how minu­tia de­fines Sheila’s days.

Chap­ters al­ter­nate be­tween the quixotic letters her grand­mother re­ceived from a neigh­bor, strained con­ver­sa­tions be­tween Sheila and her mother, and Sheila’s new­found friend­ship with the pre­teen Tor­rey and her fa­ther. These dis­parate threads con­verge around the lies and in­sen­si­tiv­i­ties that sep­a­rate peo­ple, and the mu­tual need that draws them back to­gether.

The plot wisely avoids draw­ing a straight line from past trauma to her present-day trou­bles; much is left un­said about the in­ter­ven­ing years that left Sheila so numbed.

Amid dark themes of fail­ure, Tor­rey stands out as an an­chor­ing pres­ence. Her friend­ship, which re­mains free of judg­ment, al­lows Sheila to be­gin find­ing a way back from her self-sab­o­tag­ing habits.

This un­set­tling ex­plo­ration of a trou­bled mind braids pas­sion with stag­na­tion, and the power of fam­ily ties with the need to evade them. Sheila’s strug­gle to break away from her own hurt doesn’t end with the book, which of­fers a thought­ful por­trayal of the slow path home. Here, even the most iso­lated in­di­vid­u­als find mean­ing­ful con­nec­tions. In a beau­ti­ful turn of events, the hope that Sheila had longed for was al­ways near.

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