How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball
Midway through Jesse Ball’s novel How to Set a Fire and Why, the narrator, a fifteen-year-old girl called Lucia Stanton, takes a series of tests to see if she can be accepted into a prestigious school. After responding to an essay question, ‘Why Hitler?’ she’s put in front of a camera and asked to tell a joke. She hesitates for a moment, over-thinking things, before telling a story about an eagle that was killing local dogs while accidentally wearing a beanie it had lifted from one of its victims.
Lucia tells the story as a joke, but really it’s horrific, and it’s almost emblematic of the whole novel, in which we follow Lucia retaining a sense of humour while she’s moved to a new high-school after she stabbed a popular boy in the neck; while she lives in poverty in a garage with her aunt; and when her father is dead and her mother is now in a mental institution, where she spends most of her time staring silently at a fish pond.
Written as a straight narrative it would almost be too much to take, but the book is sectioned by asides, tests – Lucia is trying to get into an Arson Club – diagrams and predictions for the day which are followed by ‘What Happened’. As the elements stack up, the sadness at the heart of the book is slowly revealed.
For a young writer, Jesse Ball’s output has been incredibly prolific. We’re getting to the point where it’s almost impossible for him to release a bad book. His works, though wildly different, are always mysterious, puzzling and incredibly interesting. How to Set a Fire and Why is no exception.
Chris Somerville works for the online team at Readings.