Celeste Ng’s new novel, Little Fires Everywhere is a remarkable novel, not least because the writer privileges the essential humanity in her characters despite their fallibility. Another writer might have focussed on the way mistakes transform lives negatively and offer little prospect of second chances. However, Ng uses her omniscient narrator to reveal ‘everything’ and yet to forgive: to show compassion instead of vilification.
I knew Ng was an exceptional writer when early in the narrative, she explores the emotional experience of her young character, Moody, thus:
The more time they spent together, the more Moody began to feel that he was in two places at once. At any given moment- every moment he could arrange, in fact- he was there with Pearl, in the booth at the diner, in the fork of a tree, watching her big eyes drink everything around them as if she were ferociously thirsty…at the same time…roaming the city, searching desperately for the next place he could take her…because when he ran out of places to show here, he was sure, she would disappear…Moody did not think of himself as interesting enough to hold her attention in his own right…All he had to offer her, he felt, was what his family had to offer, his family itself…
I loved this moment in the narrative, as it shows Moody’s self-doubts almost as they are forming and reforming. So that as we read this section of the novel, we are processing Moody’s fascination with his Pearl, with him. It feels natural. For there is a meandering, ‘roaming’ quality to this extract that captures Moody’s fascination and yearning. He is dazzled by Pearl and feels he has nothing to hold her attention for any length of time. So, disastrously in many ways, Moody decides to introduce her to his family. This moment is one of the best, most humane ‘inciting incidents’ I have read in years. Surely, we all have felt insufficient before the beloved? We have tried to captivate, and felt the ‘thirst’ of the beloved shifting elsewhere? And because Ng is writing about adolescence, there is something profoundly true about the discomfort associated with this painful, threshold state, that maybe persists even into later life, often buried beneath a veneer of self-assurance. Moody needs a gift to offer Pearl, so he gives her his family and finds his gift is stolen from him.
Stunning writing. Ng digs deep here. She ‘knows’ people and their secrets. This resonated with me. I felt, yes, this is true. This is what happens when we feel the risk of losing the gaze of the beloved friend. Who has never lived in Moody’s ‘two places’ at once?
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