Celeste Ng’s second novel strikingly illuminates life in America

  • Kirkus Reviews
12:00 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017 Insight and Books
‘Little Fires Everywhere,’ Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng’s “Little Fires Everywhere” is an incandescent portrait of suburbia and family, creativity, and consumerism burns bright.

It’s not for nothing that Ng (“Everything I Never Told You,” 2014) begins her second novel, about the events leading to the burning of the home of an outwardly perfect-seeming family in Shaker Heights, Ohio, circa 1997, with two epigraphs about the planned community itself—attesting to its ability to provide its residents with “protection forever against…unwelcome change” and “a rather happy life” in Utopia. But unwelcome change is precisely what disrupts the Richardson family’s rather happy life, when Mia, a charismatic, somewhat mysterious artist, and her smart, shy 15-year-old daughter, Pearl, move to town and become tenants in a rental house Mrs. Richardson inherited from her parents. Mia and Pearl live a markedly different life from the Richardsons, an affluent couple and their four high school–age children—making art instead of money (apart from what little they need to get by); rooted in each other rather than a particular place (packing up what fits in their battered VW and moving on when “the bug” hits); and assembling a hodgepodge home from creatively repurposed, scavenged castoffs and love rather than gathering around them the symbols of a successful life in the American suburbs (a big house, a large family, gleaming appliances, chic clothes, many cars). What really sets Mia and Pearl apart and sets in motion the events leading to the “little fires everywhere” that will consume the Richardsons’ secure, stable world, however, is the way they hew to their own rules. In a place like Shaker Heights, a town built on plans and rules, and for a family like the Richardsons, who have structured their lives according to them, disdain for conformity acts as an accelerant, setting fire to the dormant sparks within them. The ultimate effect is cataclysmic. As in “Everything I Never Told You,” Ng conjures a sense of place and displacement and shows a remarkable ability to see—and reveal—a story from different perspectives. The characters she creates here are wonderfully appealing, and watching their paths connect — like little trails of flame leading inexorably toward one another to create a big inferno — is mesmerizing, casting into new light ideas about creativity and consumerism, parenthood and privilege.

With her second novel, Ng further proves she’s a sensitive, insightful writer with a striking ability to illuminate life in America.

(Ng will speak and sign copies of her book starting at 7 p.m. Sept. 26 at BookPeople. Free to attend; only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing. Information: bookpeople.com.)

A sketch of wonderment

Acclaimed author Karl Ove Knausgaard delivers a host of brief but insightful observations about the small matters of everyday life in “Autumn.”

In the “My Struggle” series, Knausgaard mined his life but called it fiction, crafting an epic story with a novelistic shape. This book, the first in a quartet with seasonal themes, is explicitly autobiographical but less personally revealing, looking outward instead of inward. Contemplating the upcoming birth of his daughter, the author asks, “what makes life worth living?” The answer: details. The book is built on an assortment of short essays on a wide range of topics, including frogs, photographs, beds, and tin cans. Autumn is a framing device, but not every essay engages with the season. What truly unites these pieces is Knausgaard’s sensibility, which is one part Montaigne (an urge to address big issues), one part Nicholson Baker (an eye for picayune detail), and one part Annie Dillard (an admiration for nature and an elegant prose style). Watching beekeepers, he finds an intersection of man and nature that “shows human beings at their most subservient and perhaps also at their most beautiful.” “Fever” triggers memories of his parents doting on his childhood illnesses. (“With fever came privileges. Meals in bed. Grapes. New comic books.”) “Forgiveness” is a sketch about his wonderment at how humans could culturally arrive at a capacity for mercy. Considering bird migrations, he finds not a clichéd sense of freedom but evidence of nature’s boundaries. Because each chapter is brief, usually about three pages, Knausgaard can’t deliver more than glancing consideration of any one subject, and three pages each on female genitalia and vomit is more than plenty. But in the aggregate, the pieces feel remarkably substantive, a call to pay closer attention to the routine stuff in our lives and to allow ourselves to be thunderstruck by their beauty.

“Autumn” is an engagingly wide-ranging set of meditations.

View full experience