This was a great month for books. There were some good ones and some excellent ones. Some I'd been waiting for for months and some were new discoveries. Here are the first couple:
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
This is the second of Celeste Ng’s novels and, having read both this one and the first one, I can’t wait for number three! She is excellent at writing from the point of view of the outsider in suburbia and at looking past the pretty facades to examine the dysfunction lurking within. This novel is set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, which is an actual place where the Ng spent part of her childhood. It was a planned community that still has strict rules--no garbage cans in front of the house, even on pick-up day. The truck comes down the street and a person on a scooter rides behind each house, collects the bin, brings it back to the truck, empties it, and brings it back. Grass can only grow so high before it must be cut or the city sends a warning to the owner--cut it or we’ll do it for you and send you the bill. They try (unsuccessfully, of course)to hide class divisions by requiring any multi-family dwelling to look on the outside like it is a single family house. It was thought, and possibly still is, that by rigidly planning these kinds of things, everything will be harmonious. You can guess how well that works.
As with her first novel, Everything I Never Told You, the opening sentence is great:
“Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer; how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.”
From there, the book goes back in time to tell the reader how this came to pass. We learn that the Richardson family is an economically comfortable Shaker Heights family. Mr Richardson is a lawyer and Mrs Richardson is a journalist on the small local paper. They have four children, one of whom is not like the others in terms of her comfort level and difficulty finding a way to belong in the family, home, and community. Mrs Richardson has inherited a house with two apartments, the bottom of which is rented by an older Chinese immigrant. The other has had more tenants cycling in and out and is vacant. Mia Warren, an artist, and her daughter, Pearl, rent it. Pearl becomes friends with the Richardson kids and spends a lot of time at their house. Mia becomes close in different ways with the different Richardson kids. Tension is created in all of these relationships.
Various members of both families get involved in different ways when a well-off childhood friend of Mrs Richardson, who has tried for years to have a baby, is offered a Chinese baby that was left at the local fire station. The baby’s mother, who is struggling to make ends meet, gets her act together and decides she made a mistake and wants the baby back just before this couple was due to finalize the adoption. A court case follows. The novel takes place in the 1990s and I recall these kinds of cases being in the news at that time.
Issues of class differences, ethnicity, belonging, exclusion, privilege, and definitions of family are themes that run throughout the book. One thing I like about Ng’s work is that, because she has always been an outsider, she sees things from that perspective. In a BBC World Book Club podcast I listened to, someone asked her about the fact that she refers to white people as white people. She replied that white people are used to being just thought of--and they see themselves--as the default, so the descriptor isn’t used. But, as she rightly pointed out, that is what they are. In calling attention to this, she aims to remind people, in this time when people on the left and the right of the political spectrum like to howl about the wrongness of identity politics, that white is an identity too. I was very pleased to hear her saying this--it brought to mind the many times I would have white students come up to me after class and say, with almost a sense of wonder, that they never realised that they had a culture, too. They thought the way they lived was ‘just the way things are’ and that it was those other, different people who had a culture. Those moments made me very happy, indeed. So did this book, which I highly recommend.
Killjoy by Ann Cleeves
This is the fourth of the author’s 6 Inspector Ramsay books. This time, he and his obnoxious, arrogant sidekick, Hunter, are called to assist a neighbouring police force who is having trouble with thefts of property and cars. A young woman, the lead in a local theatre production, is found dead in the director’s car. She was from the housing estate where people with low incomes live, but had moved into the suburban home of a woman who also works at the theatre and her daughter, who was the understudy in the play. Eventually, Ramsay untangles the web.
Here's hoping October is full of pleasant autumnal/springtime moments!