How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball

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How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: Lucia Stanton is a cynical 14-year-old misfit who lives with her elderly aunt in a garage. At first, she only supports the idea of arson, but events draw her into getting personally involved. Her terrific Holden Caulfield-esque voice makes this memorable.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: July 2016
Publisher: Text Publishing Company
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781925355475

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Lucia Stanton is a sarcastic 14-year-old misfit who lives with her elderly Aunt Lucy in a garage they rent from an evil landlord at the bottom of his large garden. She never comes right out and explains why she's there, but if you read between the lines you work out that her father is dead and her mother is in a mental hospital – presumably for his murder. Aunt Lucy is dignified and principled – Don't do things you aren't proud of is her motto – even though they are undeniably poor: Lucia only has one set of clothes and mostly lives off of liquorice and Aunt Lucy's terrible homemade bread.

Lucia has recently had to change schools after she tried to stab a basketball star in the neck with a pencil for touching her Zippo lighter, her only souvenir of her father. At Whistler High rumours spread about her and she quickly earns herself a week of detention and visits to the school psychiatrist, whom she reduces to tears. Although she is really very intelligent, as witnessed by her advanced vocabulary and a teacher encouraging her to interview for a place at a special school for high achievers with social problems, she doesn't apply herself. It is almost as if she is too clever for school; it has nothing to teach her she doesn't already know.

Meanwhile, Whistler has a secret arson club that meets on 'Alcatraz', an island in the middle of a local lake. At first, Lucia only supports the idea of arson, and writes a lofty pamphlet defending it as an acceptable means of class warfare: 'With this little lick of flame in your pocket, with this little gift of Prometheus, you can reduce everyone to a sort of grim equality.' Only later, after her aunt has a stroke, does Lucia start considering her very own arson plot.

The book is striking for its layout: on each page the title or author's name is aligned vertically down the side margin beneath the page number, instead of the usual pattern of information at the top and numbers at the bottom. The short chapters are either numbered or have thematic titles and are divided into lots of small, left-aligned paragraphs. This is meant to be Lucia's private notebook, contrasting her predictions of what will happen with what actually happens, and the layout helps it to feel authentic.

Best of all, though, is the narrative voice. This is one of those fairly rare novels that stand out immediately for the first-person voice. Lucia reminded me of Holden Caulfield or of Mim Malone from David Arnold's Mosquitoland. She's like a cynical philosopher. For as heartbreaking as her family history is, she was always either making me laugh or impressing me with her wisdom. Here are some of my favourite lines:

'I hate listening to the way most people talk. It is enough to turn you into a hermit.'

'By the way, the principal was talking about evil, and I was thinking: how goddamned Manichaean this country is. Isn't it obvious that the world is a meaningless place where there is a faint impression you can leave on each other by being compassionate, but not much more than that?'

'We deceive ourselves into thinking life is long, but fire reminds us—it is a flickering. Life is a flickering—and then it is gone. So, we must make the most of it.'

Jesse Ball teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Although this is his sixth novel, I hadn't heard of him prior to picking it up. His skill at creating the interior world of a troubled 14-year-old girl leads me to believe that the rest of his work would be well worth a look.

Further reading suggestion: Another recent young adult novel we can recommend is The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner. You might also enjoy A Gate At The Stairs by Lorrie Moore.

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Buy How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball at


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