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 past you remembered and the future you longed for existed all 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.Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere takes place in a neatly laid out suburb of Cleveland, a community that takes pride in its planned-ness, its neatness, its control. That facade falls apart immediately; the fires from the title come in the opening pages as the daughter of a lifelong resident burns her family's house to the ground. The novel circles back to the weeks and months before the fire, showing the slow, inexorable slide into chaos and follows several families in Shaker Heights: a seemingly perfect nuclear family, an artist mother and her daughter newly arrived in town, a couple with a newly adopted infant, and the mother of that infant. While we only know about the fire from the get-go, Ng builds each of these storylines to a crisis point beautifully. Once I had gotten a few chapters in, I couldn't put it down.
On some level, this is a novel about belonging. Ng plays with the idea of community, relationship, and family, and the ways each of those ideas is built around a sense of who belongs where and who belongs to whom. The idea that a tight-knit community (or family or relationship) is defined not only by who belongs within it but also by who gets left on the outside is brought up over and over in different forms and permutations. The teenagers in the book struggle with belonging in all the predictable ways, but also succeed in some new and unexpected ones--the art of incorporating yourself, however briefly, into a friend's family for instance.
I'm not sure if I would have read it this way at another point in my life, but this also felt very much like a book about motherhood. There are many mothers and aspiring mothers here, and each gives a different glimpse into the various heartbreaks and joys of being a parent. Ng's mothers are for the most part incredibly complicated-both in their maternal lives and their outward personas, and she builds character beautifully, especially with her two leading women.
Ng's first novel, Everything I Never Told You, is more overtly a mystery (a girl disappears in the first pages), but Little Fires Everywhere has the same tension and suspense. You don't know immediately what the mystery is, but you can tell there is one. It's a little more subtle, and I enjoyed it more as a result.