The Cheltenham Literature Festival – 5th to 14th October 2018
Powerful novel set in Shaker Heights, Cleveland, Ohio
9th November 2017
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, novel set in Shaker Heights, Cleveland, Ohio.
Shaker Heights is a planned community developed in 1909 by the Van Sweringen brothers, railroad owners who saw the community as an out of town retreat from the industrial inner city of Cleveland. It is still thriving as a grassy, well-manicured, upper middle class suburb. It is where Celeste Ng grew up.
It is also the brilliant setting for Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste’s second novel. The first, Everything I Never Told You, was received with critical acclaim and commercial success. Little Fires Everywhere is already generating the same response… The book is the story of two families from ‘different sides of the tracks’ whose lives become increasingly interwoven. Their children intermingle and feel comfortable in each other’s homes. The mother of the poorer family, Mia, becomes a housekeeper to the richer (actually she is a very talented photographer who struggles to make a living). Her daughter, Pearl, is best friends with Moody, the younger of the two Richardson boys (the Richardsons being the richer family). The Warrens (the poorer family, just Mia and Pearl) had been nomadic for years – but they seem to be settled in an investment property (owned by the Richardsons) in the not quite so smart area of Shaker Heights. All is going rather well…
The novel opens with its conclusion. The Richardsons’ house is burnt to the ground, supposedly by Izzy the younger of the two Richardson daughters. The story explores how we got to such a point. And, to that extent, the book is a mystery – perhaps even a thriller… But it is a great deal more. It explores the gulf between rich and poor, and the impact that race has in the States. But, in this case, the race is Asian rather than black. Mia also works as a waitress in the local Chinese restaurant, and has a colleague there, Bebe, who is an Asian immigrant and has a baby who she struggles to look after. One night Bebe abandons the baby on the steps of the local fire station. The authorities cannot trace her, and give the baby to friends of the Richardsons, the McCulloughs, who have been trying unsuccessfully for a baby and are on a list for adoption. Then Bebe finds out where her daughter (May Ling Chow or Mirabelle McCullough, depending on your point of view…) is, and decides she wants her back. A court case ensues, and Mr Richardson (a lawyer) represents the McCulloughs.
And there is a parallel plot as well. For reasons that will become obvious, Mrs Richardson (a local journalist) decides to investigate Mia and Pearl. We track back to Mia’s time as a photography student in New York, what befell her, and why she and Pearl had taken to the nomadic lifestyle. It is truly an epic story.
Little Fires Everywhere is a book that you will return to in your thoughts. The characters are well constructed (especially the children), but it is the plot that keeps you enthralled. Very highly recommended.
Tony for the TripFiction team
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