How To Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball
Review by Kylie Thompson
Rating: 4 and a half stars
Genre: drama, coming of age
Lucia is angry.
She’s angry at her mother, broken in a mental hospital. She’s angry at the stupidly popular boy at school who stole her dead father’s lighter from her. She’s angry at the adults who take his side over hers, and the adults who expect her to be something other than who she is.
When she discovers a secret arson club, Lucia wants in. But how far will she take her desire to see a disappointing world burn?
‘How To Set A Fire and Why’ is a poignant novel, filled with equal parts fury and profundity. It’s hard, though, to articulate just why it shakes you.
Maybe it’s that Lucia is the kind of girl any of us could have been- the sort filled with promise in a reality that’s more than likely going to squash it.
Author Jesse Ball could have easily made this another story about the great American myth of overcoming adversity: Lucia could have been just another adorable young genius winning over the gatekeepers to her education and success with the sheer force of her optimism. She could have fallen in love with the jock who stole her lighter, could have giggled and batted her eyelashes into the life of her dreams. Instead, readers are treated to a subversive, unsettling, and utterly spellbinding glimpse behind the curtain of our beliefs around happiness and success.
If ‘fame and fortune’ is how society defines success, and success is how to find happiness, how do those denied that version of happiness make meaningful lives of their own? How does a girl with a lighter and a grudge find her own joy and meaning when she’ll never get the sort of happiness the rest of the world seems to covet? Instead of the prototypical version of the ‘happily ever after’, Ball gives his protagonist the space to define her own version of happiness and success. Maybe she’ll fall in love, maybe she’ll find a way to work within the confines of the baffling reality around her, or maybe she’ll find another option.
There’s a tradition of child truth-bringers in fiction, child or teenage characters who fearlessly speak the truths that adults so often hesitate to acknowledge. Lucia certainly has her place among them. To her mind, the world is unfair, and sometimes, the only sane reaction to insanity is anger. It’s hard not to find Lucia’s frustration at the world justified, and hard not to see the truth in her words and ideas.
It would be easy to write off a book like this as an attention seeking gimmick, or worse, a treatise on, as the title suggests, the best ways to burn things down. This isn’t a go-to guide for arson and destruction, nor an anarchistic exploration of how to dismantle society. Take away the fire themes, and at its heart, ‘How To Set A Fire And Why’ is a story about choices, and the way we don’t always get to make them about our own lives. If there is a danger lurking in such a character, it’s less in her love of fire, and more about her ability to see through the clichés and cognitive dissonance the world seems desperate to feed her.
In ‘How To Set A Fire And Why’, Ball has created a heartbreakingly honest, raw world for his characters to inhabit. For those who like their fiction to explore the darker elements of life, this is a book that needs pride of place on your ‘to be read’ pile.
‘How To Set A Fire And Why’ is published by Text Publishing, and is available through the publisher’s website, and through all good bookstores and e-retailers.