This is my third Jesse Ball novel and I have to say: I can’t think of another contemporary author who has such an original and inventive voice and style. The best thing about Ball is that he’s no one-trick pony: the only thing his books have in common is that they are each wholly unique.
In How to Set a Fire and Why, his protagonist is a teenage girl named Lucia, who tells us her story through a series of journal entries. The best way I can describe Lucia is like this: Imagine Holden Caulfield if he were into arson, class warfare and vigilante justice. If that isn’t enough to pique your interest, I don’t know what to tell you.
Lucia’s father is dead and her mother is in a mental institution. She lives with her 75-year-old aunt, who fully supports her niece’s myriad outlets for teen rebellion. After getting kicked out of her previous high school, Lucia finds a way to fit in at her new school: she join’s a secret Arson Club.
I’m afraid I’m making this all sound very dark, but it’s not. Lucia’s voice is hilarious, sardonic and sarcastic. She’s smart enough to rationalize her penchant for destruction, insightful enough to clarify that while she doesn’t think there’s meaning in anything, she also doesn’t find nihilism exciting.
Lucia is a unique new voice in teen rebellion, convinced that what she sets out to do is right and just. Most of us have been there before, though hopefully not to the point of committing felonies. Still, it’s hard to feel anything but love for this subversive character.
I recommend this book to anyone who is drawn to quirky novels, from Chuck Palahniuk’s nihilism and anarchy to Miranda July’s peculiar tenderness.