Book Review: How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball


4.5/5 Stars.

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.

Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball


4/5 Stars.

This is my second Jesse Ball novel, and once again I find myself feeling an immense sense of intellectual fulfillment upon reading it.

The story is about a man named Oda Sotatsu who confesses to a mysterious crime known as the Narito Disappearances, and then refuses to speak to interrogators, lawyers, family members or anyone else following his arrest. The narrative plays out as a series of interviews between a curious journalist and individuals from Sotatsu’s life who may have some insight into what exactly happened.

Lyrical and haunting, Ball’s prose is the kind that you want to read carefully to absorb every single word. He manages to create an eerie, melancholy tone in the first few pages that carries over throughout the rest of the book. And the mystery at the heart of it all is consistently engaging; never dull or frustrating.

Clearly influenced by Camus and Kafka, Silence Once Begun is a somber, absurd, nihilistic story that critiques the nature of confession and the role that public perception inevitably plays in determining one’s guilt or innocence.

A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball

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4/5 Stars.

This is one of the most intellectually stimulating novels I’ve read in a long time. It feels like an homage to Ray Bradbury and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Anthem in some ways, or like a drawn out episode of Black Mirror.

The story is simple: A man, known as “the claimant,” was once very sick, and he has been brought to a curious village to recover, his mind more or less completely wiped clean. Here, he interacts almost exclusively with a woman known as “the examiner,” who has been assigned to the claimant to teach him how to live.

One day, the man encounters a woman named Hilda – another claimant – who challenges his very concept of reality, forcing him to question himself, the examiner, the nature of the village and why he is here.

Ball uses lyrical, poetic, philosophical prose to tell this story, and challenges the reader to consider deep, fascinating questions about humanity: How far would you go to eliminate pain, depression, and heartache from your life? Who are we without our memories? What does it mean to be a person? Would you give up truth and knowledge for comfort? At what cost?

I absolutely loved about three-quarters of this book. I couldn’t put it down (it’s a fast, engaging read). There was one section that veered from the narrative a bit, and though integral to the story, it took me out of the flow and wasn’t quite as interesting as the other parts. Still, as a complete book, A Cure for Suicide is well worth reading.