Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere poses burning questions about race and motherhood

Celeste Ng's second novel opens with a house on fire. A suburban matriarch wakes up to the shrilling of the smoke alarm and runs through the house to find, in each of her children's beds, a small crackling fire.

This is the fire in full blaze; pan out, and Ng goes back in time to show the reader how it was stoked. In this study of suburban life gone awry, she demonstrates how words and deeds become kindling with which, if ignited, whole lives go up in flames.

Little Fires Everywhere is set in the Shaker Heights, Ohio, of Ng's own childhood, a Pleasantville-like neighbourhood with manicured lawns and progressive families containing just the right sprinkling of diversity.

The family who will go from this picture of perfection to having their house consumed by flames are the Richardsons. Their matriarch, Elena, relinquished her dreams of a career in investigative journalism to raise her four children: beautiful, popular Lexie; dashing jock Trip; thoughtful, awkward Moody; and Izzy, a difficult little rebel.

Things start to unravel when the Richardsons take on a tenant, single mother Mia Warren, whose quiet teenage daughter Pearl becomes enamoured of the Richardsons' stable home life.

Mia juggles jobs as a waitress and a cleaner, but her real livelihood is art. The only life Pearl has known with her is drifting from town to town, constantly being uprooted; she does not know how she was born or what Mia is running from.



    By Celeste Ng

    Little, Brown/Paperback/370 pages/ $23.96/Books Kinokuniya

    3.5/5 stars

The match that sets all this ablaze is a Chinese baby, found in a cardboard box outside a fire station and adopted by the McCulloughs, a wealthy white couple in the neighbourhood.

But the child's real mother - Bebe Chow, a young immigrant waitress whom Mia befriends - now wants to get back the daughter she abandoned in a fit of post-partum depression. The resulting custody battle will divide the town and tear apart two families, the Richardsons and the Warrens.

Ng is prone to heavy-handed metaphors. Her characters tend to think things like: "All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control... The key, she thought, was to avoid conflagration."

But she excels at well-rounded characters, in particular her mothers: enigmatic, bohemian Mia; Bebe, whose love for her daughter is overwhelmed by the harsh realities of life below the poverty line; and even Mrs Richardson, in whose impeccable heart burns that same fire she would like to see preventively snuffed out in others.

Through them, Ng poses burning questions about race and motherhood, about the impossible and sometimes unforgivable choices one is driven to for the love of a child.

If you liked this, read: White Oleander by Janet Fitch (Little, Brown, 2000, $20.24, Books Kinokuniya). After her mother is jailed for murdering her lover, quiet, artistic teenager Astrid Magnussen is moved to a series of foster homes.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2017, with the headline 'From suburban perfection to lives set ablaze'. Print Edition | Subscribe