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Book review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Updated: Jun 25, 2020

It is difficult not to marvel at Little Fires Everywhere. Written by Celeste Ng (伍綺詩), an American writer of Hong Kong descent, this novel is a delightful gem. Its plot line, in particular, is superbly constructed, setting in train a litany of twists and turns like a meticulously choreographed fireworks display in a tale of many themes.

The book is set in Shaker Heights, Ohio in the 1990s. It begins in medias res — a fire that burns down the house of Mrs Richardson's family. The mother of four children (Lexie, Trip, Moody and Izzy), Mrs Richardson is a reporter who has a lawyer husband and lives a comfortable life in a neighbourhood that conscientiously incorporates ideals like racial diversity and order into its planning and prides itself on being the beacon of integration. Mrs Richardson, meanwhile, is as liberal as can be, intentionally renting the family's other house to less privileged individuals. One of her tenants is Mia, an enigmatic photographer, and her daughter Pearl. For some unknown reason, the mother and daughter lead a nomadic life, with Mia doing odd jobs to make just enough money to support her artistic life.

Mrs Richardson's seems to be a loving, respectable family, but there is a skeleton in every cupboard. One day her good friend Mrs McCullough adopts a Chinese baby girl abandoned at a fire station, who turns out to have been left behind by Bebe Chow, Mia's co-worker at a restaurant. As one thing leads to another, the masquerade of this exemplary household becomes untenable at once. The past of Mia is dug up, and a legal battle for the baby girl unfolds. In a dizzying turn of events, the dark side of human nature — hypocrisy and selfishness — is bought into full display.

As mentioned beforehand, I am amazed by the plot line of this novel more than anything else. The stories of Mrs Richardson, Mia and Bebe Chow move in diverse directions both spatially and temporally, but the common themes of motherhood, idealism vs realism, and freedom vs obligations make them cross paths. While there are striking parallels between their predicaments, their personalities and circumstances impel them to take different actions. These actions are extraordinary and have no lack of high drama. Yet they are also inevitable and at times heart-wrenching — which makes the books such a breathtaking read — showing how hard it is not to fall victim to the constraints of reality.

Though it is a novel about families, readers might see it as a work about society as well. These words said by Mia to Izzy, though intended to be about arts, is perhaps the mindset of many protesters — not just those in Hong Kong — in these times of great unrest when they see that a society falls short of its promises: ''Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over. After the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too. They start over. They find a way.'' Issy interprets them as the sorry state of her family, but they can be about the nation and even liberalism itself.

Lastly, one interesting fact about its adaptation. Little Fires Everywhere has been turned into a TV miniseries featuring Reese Witherspoon as Mrs Richardson and Kerry Washington as Mia. This means Mia is black on TV. In the novel, however, she is presumed to be white, as there is a scene of Lexie (Mrs Richardson's daughter) lying about Pearl (Mia's daughter) being her sister. This would be less likely if they were of different races. While the artistic consideration is presumably to complicate the conflict between Mrs Richardson and Mia, it should be said that the novel itself is not so much about race than about many other motifs.

Originally published in Ming Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper, on 9 June 2020.

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