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The strength of a mother’s love

By Sally Bland - Jul 14,2019 - Last updated at Jul 14,2019

Little Fires Everywhere

Celeste Ng

US: Penguin Random House, 2017

Pp. 336

 

Like Celeste Ng’s first novel, “Little Fires Everywhere” opens with a traumatic climax — a fire, and then pedals backwards to tell how things turned out that way. In “Everything I Never Told You” (2014), the traumatic event is the drowning of a teenage girl, but it remains unclear if it was suicide, an accident or a crime.

In “Little Fires Everywhere”, a veil of ambiguity is also thrown over the fire in the Richardson’s house, but it is more porous: Everyone assumes that Isabelle, the youngest Richardson daughter, has ignited the blaze which grew from small fires set in the middle of each family member’s bed — one of many bizarre details in the story. But this is gossip; one doesn’t know for sure if it was Isabelle, much less why she did it, until the end.

Though the plots are totally different, there are other commonalities in Ng’s two novels: Both have outsiders as major characters who have closely guarded secrets, and both focus on family relations, examining how members of the same family understand and misunderstand each other, and how they interact accordingly. In “Little Fires Everywhere”, however, the mother-child bond overshadows all other relationships. While in “Everything I Never Told You”, Ng examines how the drowned girl’s father being ethnic Chinese affected their family life, “Little Fires Everywhere” examines class differences as well. 

To illustrate this, Ng focuses not on one family or one point of ethnic difference, but rather contrasts two families of different social status and structure. Accordingly, “Little Fires Everywhere” has many more characters and a more complex plot. Just tying up the threads of the several subplots and structuring the story in retrospect is an achievement in itself.

“Little Fires Everywhere” is set in Shaker Heights, a planned suburban community in Ohio, whose residents pride themselves on living according to rational and progressive values, imagining themselves to be beyond racism and other forms of prejudice. Four mothers or would-be mothers figure prominently in the story. Mrs Richardson, mother of four, is emblematic of Shaker Heights, priding herself on always doing the right thing in an orderly way. “All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing.” (p. 161)

But the unfolding of the plot shows that “the right thing” is not always clear-cut, nor is reality fair to all. Mrs Richardson’s close friend, Mrs McCullough, for example, is suffering from being unable to have a child. 

Implicitly challenging the orderliness of these two rich women’s lives is Mia, an artist and single mother, newly arrived in Shaker Heights. Mia also lives according to her principles, but her principles are more about creativity and freedom than just following the rules. Having moved from place to place all during her daughter Pearl’s childhood, Mia promises Pearl that this time they will stay. For the first time, Pearl makes friends, and her best friends are the Richardson children. Soon many ties connect the two families, making the contrast between their lifestyles more pronounced: Mia rents a small house from the Richardsons and does Mrs Richardson’s housework, spending the rest of the time on her art projects, while Pearl excels in high school. But events conspire to make Mrs Richardson suspicious of Mia: “A sweet face. A young face, but not an innocent face. She didn’t care, Mrs. Richardson realised, what people thought of her. In a way, that made her dangerous.” (p. 138)

Things come to a head when Mrs McCullough and her husband try to adopt a female child abandoned by Bebe, a Chinese immigrant woman who was unable to provide for her at birth. But Bebe’s situation improves, and she wants to reclaim her baby. The resulting legal and moral battle cuts through family ties and friendships, as members of the two families, like the community as a whole, align either with the birth mother or the adoptive mother. 

Ng has a gift for revealing her characters’ inner thoughts and motivations, and for writing about lives lived both in affluence and stability, or off the beaten track. Under her pen, even bizarre human behaviour is rendered credible. She also poses questions that may be easy to answer in the abstract but more complicated in specific cases: Has the US reached a stage of post-racism? Is a child better off with her birth mother even if that mother is poor and marginal, or with parents who can give her a privileged life? Should a woman be deprived of her child for making one mistake? Is there always a right way and a wrong way to do things? One keeps thinking about these dilemmas and visualising the novel’s characters long after finishing the book.

“Little Fires Everywhere” is available at Books@cafe.

 

 

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