books, Reading, Women Writers

“Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng

“If they planned every detail, the Shakers had believed, they could create a patch of heaven on earth, a little refuge from the world, and the founders of Shaker Heights had thought the same. In advertisements they depicted Shaker Heights in the clouds, looking down upon the grimy city of Cleveland from a mountaintop at the end of a rainbow’s arch. Perfection: that was the goal, and perhaps the Shakers had lived it so strongly it had seeped into the soil itself, feeding those who grew up there with a propensity to overachieve and a deep intolerance for flaws. Even the teens of Shaker Heights – whose main exposure to Shakers was singing ‘Simple Gifts’ in music class – could feel that drive for perfection still in the air.”

Celeste Ng’s much anticipated second novel, “Little Fires Everywhere”, embodies ShakerIMG-0120 Heights, a somnolent, stolid, and insular town near Cleveland, Ohio where rules and planning are the law of the land.

“Outside in the world, volcanoes erupted, governments rose and collapsed and bartered for hostages, rockets exploded, walls fell. But in Shaker Heights, things were peaceful, and riots and bombs and earthquakes were quiet thumps, muffled by distance. Her house was large; her children safe and happy and well educated. This was, she told herself, the broad strokes of what she had planned out all those years ago.”

There we meet the Richardson family – Shaker Heights native and believer Elena, her almost totally absent husband, and her four over-privileged and insouciant teenaged children.

“Lexie had her golden smile and her easy laugh, Trip had his looks and his dimples: why wouldn’t people like them, why would they ever even ask such a thing? For Izzy, it was even simpler: she didn’t care what people thought of her. But Moody did not possess Lexie’s warmth, Trip’s roguish charm, Izzy’s self-confidence. All he had to offer her, he felt, was what his family had to offer, his family itself, and it was this that led him to say, one afternoon in late July, ‘Come over. You can meet my family.'”

Free spirit, nomadic Mia and her treasured daughter Pearl enter the Richardsons’ world as tenants of a rental property and become increasingly and acutely entangled in their lives. Their otherness and their utter differences in philosophy and life make them both a foil for the Richardsons and simultaneously an aspiration, a temptation, a siren call.

“Little Fires Everywhere” is a story of relationships, of belonging, and of the rules we make and break around us. Ng captures the ache and awe of parenting from three very different perspectives, all of which seem equally true. Her insight is breathtaking and almost intrusive, as though she is somehow broadcasting our innermost fears and foibles.

“To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person: your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once. You could see it every time you looked at her: layered in her face was the baby she’d been and the child she’d become and the adult she would grow up to be, and you saw them all simultaneously, like a 3-D image. It made your head spin. It was a place you could take refuge, if you knew how to get in. And each time you left it, each time your child passed out of your sight, you feared you might never be able to return to that place again.”

Throughout the novel, Ng is playing with the notions of passion and control with astounding power.

“All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks leapt like fleas and spread as rapidly; a breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never – could never – set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity. The key, she thought, was to avoid conflagration.”

This metaphorical language of a controlled burn is so delicious in the context of a story which starts with (and then builds back up to) an angry daughter from a model family burning the family house to the ground.

If I said I just wanted to crawl inside Celeste Ng’s head, to explore the worlds of her imagining and feel the embrace of her lovingly constructed sentences, would that be…weird? Ng had me from the book’s dedication page, and I enjoyed every page to the very last. What a gift to the world of readers and what a gift this writer possesses. May she continue setting little fires everywhere.

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books, Historical Fiction, Reading, Women Writers

“The Widows of Malabar Hill” by Sujata Massey

unnamed-11          “‘How dare you speak of being in charge?’ Mukri’s gaze was contemptuous. ‘You are not even accredited by the Bombay Bar. You have no power in the court.’
          Perveen realized he must have looked into her background and had prepared to fight. His insulting declaration was intended to scare the begums into thinking she couldn’t defend them. Drawing herself up to her full five feet three inches, Perveen said, ‘The women on the other side of the jali are not weak. They hold more power in their six hands than you have in two.'”

I am not, generally, a crime/mystery/thriller, kind of a reader, but I can appreciate refreshing dips in those genre-pools every once in a while, particularly as I continue to try to push myself to read more broadly. So when I got wind of a new mystery series featuring a brown female protagonist, written by an accomplished, cosmopolitan female writer, and set among the conflicting ethnic communities of 1920s Bombay, all I could say was ‘Yes, please.’

In the first installment of Sujata Massey’s newest series, “The Widows of Malabar Hill”, we meet Perveen Mistry, a young woman who has fought to study law at a time when women are discouraged from doing any such thing and are excluded from the Bar. Perveen works with her father Jamshedji in his law practice, primarily doing legwork and paperwork to serve their clientele. When Perveen discovers that the widows of a recently deceased client, women who are purdahnashins living in strict seclusion, wish to dramatically restructure their finances and donate most of their inheritance to the family wakf, a charitable trust managed by a former employee of their husband, she has concerns about their motivation and their well-being. Mystery and intrigue ensue.

Massey’s exploration of some of the communities and cultures within 1920s India was the strength of this work for me. I particularly appreciated the exploration of the Mistry’s Parsi circle – Zoroastrian, long-ago immigrants from Persia to India who comprise a small, insular community in India.

Massey certainly had moments of pith and clever phrase, such as the following dialogue between Perveen and one of the widows:

“‘Razia-begum, it seems that you are chained to some people and a large old house that you cannot fully enjoy.’
Razia looked warily at Perveen. ‘Is that not the meaning of family?'”

However, this wasn’t a book that was deeply quotable, that called out to be dog-earred or re-read, that contained poetic prose or lyrical passages. It was an enjoyable, unexceptionally crafted work in which the novelties of the culture and history carried the day. Unfortunately, I suppose, that played into my prejudices about the genre – factual details tend to be more interesting than (often predictable) plot twists and more memorable than (often prosaic) turns of phrase.

Thank you to Soho Crime for providing a complimentary copy in exchange for a fair and honest review.