Book Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

By Holly McKie

In our current global situation, these ‘unprecedented times’ as we hear it called at least once every day, most people are looking for something to make their days stuck at home feel that little bit more bearable.

For some, it is learning a new skill, re-downloading Duolingo, or binge watching the latest cult favourite on Netflix (enter: Tiger King). For others, including me, it is finally reading the books that have sat untouched in a bookcase for months or even years.

Little Fires Everywhere has sat on a shelf in my bedroom for just shy of two years, for a reason I have yet to understand. I think I thought it was going to be yet another one of those over-hyped books that was good – good enough to be turned into TV series and attract the likes of Reese Witherspoon for the cast – but it wasn’t going to be as great as the hysteria would lead you to believe.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Shaker Heights in Cleveland, Ohio, is one of America’s first planned communities. The houses look a certain way and the people act a certain way. It strives for order and perfection, something which Elena Richardson sums up to a T. The author, Celeste Ng, actually spent some of her formative years in this very community, making her the perfect writer to approach this setting. I actually hadn’t realised until the end of the novel when it gave a short author’s bio, mentioning Shaker Heights, that it was even a real place. I read the entire book believing, without questioning it, that Ng had created it herself. That’s how convincing she was.

The novel begins with the Richardson’s house burning down. Little fires everywhere, to be exact, and we know who is getting blamed for it. But, the book isn’t about finding who set the house on fire, in the real sense of the word. It is about why it happened. Who really set everything alight? Can it be blamed on just one single person, the failings of several people involved, or the precious community system?

Shaker Heights and its residents had followed this orderly way of life with next to no problems, until artist and single mother Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl arrive and rent a house from the Richardsons. They become so much more than just tenants, both playing a part in the slow upheaval of both the Richardson family and the community as a whole. They bring with them a secretive past, and Elena Richardson is determined to get to the bottom of it. Alongside this, the town and its families are divided when friends of the Richardsons try to adopt a Chinese-American baby. Who are the rightful parents: the rich, white American family with no understanding of Chinese culture but have a perfect house and a stable home, or the baby’s struggling biological mother who wants nothing more than to be reunited with her daughter? Mia and Elena, of course, sit on opposing sides.

With the backdrop of a carefully constructed town in the 90s, this is a book about morals. It is a book about motherhood, and what makes a mother. A family. It is about what can make a community, and what can tear it apart.

I am not a mother. I have never experienced the heartbreak of infertility. I have no concept of how it must feel to watch a physical piece of you learn and grow and blossom, or to have that taken away from you. But Celeste Ng made me feel it right down in my bones. There is something about her ability to craft sentences and develop a backstory that I can only describe as the work of an artist. The narrative seems to almost float along, little embers dancing in and out of each of the characters. This isn’t an inferno. It is a slow-burning smoulder, each line having just the right amount of words.

If you need something to occupy your brain for the rest of lockdown, and stay with you even when we get a hint of normality back, this is the one for you.