How to Set a Fire and Why: A Novel by Jesse Ball
Published by Pantheon
Publication date: July 5th 2016
Genres: Coming-of-age, Contemporary, Fiction, Literary
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You may be wondering why I am giving you this account. Well, I don’t know really. A bunch of things happened and I’m just putting them in order. I’m doing it for myself. You are just a construction—you’re helping me to put things in order. You are my fictional audience and as such, I appreciate you very much. I figure when I finish, I will throw this out.
Lucia Stanford could be just another sullen, disaffected teenager—in fact she is—but in Jesse Ball’s new novel, How to Set a Fire and Why, she is so much more. And by more I mean more than a delinquent who’s being kicked out of school in the novel’s opening pages and has a preoccupation with arson. Ball prises open the mind of one of those girls who doesn’t belong anywhere and doesn’t seem to care, to reveal an abundance of creative energy, a brutally sharp wit and a questioning mind. A girl who despite her truculent, disinterested exterior already knows that:
If they make you put on a suit, it’s because they are going to do something horrible to you. I guarantee it.
Getting older is—you think you are getting your way and you think you are getting your way and you think you are getting your way and then you are old and it turns out you didn’t get your way.
Ball writes How to Set a Fire with the feel of a diary. Lucia shares her thoughts without flourish and is not one to wallow. Life has been tough recently, with the death of her father, her mother being institutionalized and having to live with her elderly aunt in a converted garage. As she tries to manage these realities she’s presented with two opportunities. One, to attend a non-traditional school for gifted teens and two, to join a secret arson club. Not even a choice for an adult, but for a girl who’s confused and doing the best she can to make sense of her circumstances, the allure of rebellion against the established path is too strong to ignore.
The events and situations are not the reason to read How to Set a Fire. Lucia is. In all her stone-cold, tender, hot-headed confusion there is a young woman being pushed past her ability to cope. Do circumstances bring out the worst in her? Yes, but through it all Ball infuses her with such spirit that not only is she relatable, I wish I knew her. She is capable of making her own way, but it won’t be easy because she doesn’t respond to the world the way the world wants to be responded to. And that makes her all the more interesting.