Review: How to Set a Fire and Why

29 February 2016

How to Set a Fire and Why initially seems to be a typical coming of age novel that struggles to appeal to an older audience. Lucia, an unconventionally brilliant but rebellious teen must face social conformity and choose her path. A familiar setting, a seemingly predictable story arc and an underappreciated protagonist all make for dull reading.

But Jesse Ball’s writing style is enough to draw me in. And lucky it does because the novel quickly develops into something quite authentic. In stream-of-consciousness journal entries, Lucia reveals her outlook on the world, dropping philosophical gemstones. They don’t get teased out quite as much as I’d like but it’s a refreshing rationale, which transforms the mundane into an entertaining sequence of thoughts.

Lucia faces death, exclusion, financial difficulty, friendship and a host of other issues that teens encounter whilst growing up, yet remains a strong and independent role model for the reader. It serves a powerful lesson for Ball’s younger audience, and a reminder for those older, on adversity and authenticity to one’s self.

Much of How to Set A Fire and Why has to do with Lucia’s discovery and initiation into a group of arsonists. These young arsonists ironically strive for anarchy by joining a secret society, unable to discard their subconscious desire for belonging. Lucia, however, joins with her own motives, her dad’s zippo in hand and a head full of ideas. Her decisions and actions are refreshingly unbound by social convention. This ranges from the rejection of friendly small talk to having sex in front of her vegetable-like and unaware mother in a psychiatric home. After this particular incident, there is little doubt that Ball is effectively challenging our concept of normal behaviour through Lucia.

Ball isn’t afraid to stray from literary norms either, refraining from the use of quotation marks and creating diagrams of settings using actual written words – hard to explain, but a novel idea. These small but authentic differences build on Lucia’s rich character and, I think, reflect nicely on how an unconventionally brilliant teen would keep their journal.

My main qualm with How to Set A Fire and Why is that by the time I reached the end of the novel, I’d only just begun to understand Lucia – her character is dense, insightful and entertaining, and I’d have liked to see her develop further.

Ball is giving a talk on social conformity at The White House in St Kilda on 2 March so I’d get on to this one as well as his other novels as soon as you can.

Tickets available here

Book provided by Text Publishing

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