Image Credit: Penguin Press, 2017
This New York Time’s number one bestseller is a gripping, unnerving and thought-provoking novel. Through its exploration of themes of race, class and social privilege it should be seen as an important, if not essential, read for anyone seeking to broaden their awareness of the racial and social struggles that infiltrate all sections of modern day America and the wider world.
Little Fires Everywhere is set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a thoroughly planned and regimented community, founded on precise rules, with high expectations for its morally conscientious inhabitants. Mrs Richardson (Elena) exemplifies these principles to the highest degree, and has built her life based on the expectations of her parents and her home community.
On the other hand, artist Mia Warren represents all that Shaker Heights, through its meticulous planning and strict rule-following, has tried to protect itself from. With a fervent disregard for societal expectations, Mia and her teenage daughter Pearl quickly become enmeshed in the world of the Richardson family. Both Mia and Elena form an unlikely relationship that threatens to upend their lives in ways they could never have expected.
The diverse range of characters and integration of several narratives, to me, highlights the interconnectedness of humanity as a whole. Ng’s novel transports the reader in a way that forces them to view the dilemma of each character from their own perspective, invoking conflicting themes of empathy and judgement.
Regardless of age, experience, race or class, all the characters experience some kind of moral dilemma or personal hardship. This reminded me of the power of community in an increasingly divided world. Inevitably we will all face disappointment and misfortune, and both the knowledge and recognition that we are not alone in these experiences has the potential to bring a great deal of comfort to those who have no one to turn to in times of need.
Ng’s novel has recently been adapted as a television series. As a book lover I’ve always championed the ‘read the book first’ approach when it comes to literature and screenplays, and have many-a-time been frustrated when characters contradict my self constructed images of them.
However, after watching the adapted screenplay, produced by Reese Witherspoon, I found that one added line, that isn’t written in the book, stuck in my mind. In a scene where Mia is confronted by the self-determined, morally superior Elena Richardson, about her past decisions, she defends herself in this way: “You didn’t make good choices Elena. You had good choices.”
This short but poignant statement struck me. As we have all seen recently with the Black Lives Matter Movement and anti-racism protests across the world, a stark social divide in the opportunities available to, and treatment of, minority groups remains prevalent.
Elena Richardson was born into a wealthy white family, and as a result never had to face the same heart-wrenching decisions that shaped Mia’s life. That is not to say Elena was protected from experiences of loss, or grief, or her own personal struggles, but it is impossible to compare the decisions of both women.
Regardless of how far we have progressed as a society, striving to challenge social stigmas and break down racial barriers, women like Elena, and women like Mia, will continue to lead strikingly different lives. Skin colour and social status continue to predetermine the life paths of too many individuals in the present day.
Coincidently, after reading this novel, I tuned into a ‘High Low’ podcast, hosted by Pandora Sykes and Dolly Alderton, which focused on the current calls for social change surrounding systematic racism and the differing public responses. The two women discussed a recent article by author and activist, Bernadine Evaristo, that led me to reflect on Ng’s novel. Evaristo emphasised the power of stories in our understanding of each other and how literature in particular, can be a medium that connects us in an increasingly segregated world.
This got me thinking about the ideas of race and social privilege explored in Little Fire’s Everywhere. A novel like this, if read and actively considered, has the potential to remind readers of our shared humanity regardless of labels of race or social status.
While our experiences in the UK often seem far removed from prevalent issues such as cross cultural integration and human rights violations, more publicly prevalent in places such as the US, work like Ng’s can help us to explore and question universal truths regarding race that might otherwise be neglected.
In Britain, such social issues tend to be reflected in more subtle undercurrents, but Ng’s writing reminded me of the importance of being informed and persistently acting to evoke necessary change in social structures that fail to accommodate and include everyone in the way they should.
I was fascinated to discover that people who read fiction are more likely to be empathetic, as through reading they become accustomed to “putting themselves in other people's shoes.” Ng’s novel, through its intricately interwoven narratives, achieves just that. I was not only able to sympathise and grieve alongside each character, but also recognise that those who suffered the most were of ethnic minority: Bebe Chow, a young Chinese woman, and Mia Warren, a single black mother. Ng’s story forced me to reflect on the social divides still present in modern day and consider how “good choices” still fall favour to those, like Elena, who “tick the right boxes” in terms of race, social status and financial security.
Today there is a tendency to view racial injustice as a thing of the past, however, equality is not a widespread reality for many in the UK, let alone across the rest of the world. Ng’s novel indirectly reminded me of the dangers of romanticising national history and how this can prevent long term, and much needed, societal changes in regards to the treatment of, and opportunities available to, ethnic minorities. While we have come a long way from the 1960s America portrayed in this novel, there remains much needed change to the present value systems if we are truly and wholeheartedly to declare that racial injustice is a thing of the past.
Little Fires Everywhere forced me to confront the uncomfortable reality that racial inequality continues to plague modern society, and I challenge anyone to read this book without also coming to question their own morals, or previous neglect of thought on such important societal issues.