InReview InReview

Support independent journalism

Books & Poetry

How to Set a Fire and Why

Books & Poetry

Author Jesse Ball playfully challenges readers with his insightful book about a troubled teenage girl with her own arson manifesto.

Comments Print article

The buzz at this year’s Adelaide Writers’ Week was Jesse Ball. Readers talked among themselves about his work, audience members raved about his session and, at their own sessions, guest writers recalled something they’d once heard him say.

The man’s a bit brilliant. His previous books are critically noted, but it’s his latest book, How to Set a Fire and Why, that’s touted as being his best.

Lucia’s got a Zippo lighter – not just any Zippo lighter: her dad’s. He’s dead and her mother’s in a mental institution staring at the fish pond.

Lucia lives in a garage with her ageing aunt, who’s the only person who gets her, and her new school’s almost as bad as the last one she just got kicked out of. Things aren’t going so well and the idea of arson’s fast becoming a fetish.

It’s Lucia’s wry narration that drives this book. She’s funny, damaged and dangerously intelligent. The unforgettable Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye comes to mind but Ball’s style isn’t as gloomy as JD Salinger’s.

Sometimes a page might have eight paragraphs on it, each two sentences long. Sometimes a page might have only two sentences. Sometimes you’ll have to turn the book 90 degrees to read those two sentences. Ball is playfully challenging, pushing borders of exposition and ensuring readers love his troubled protagonist.

How to Set a Fire and Why, by Jesse Ball, Text Publishing, $29.99.

How to Set a Fire and Why, by Jesse Ball, Text Publishing, $29.99.

It’s a novel of expression, mostly: how many ways can Lucia narrate what’s going on inside of her? So long ago, Faulkner attempted the same with his stream-of-consciousness technique and changed the way we read and wrote literature. I can’t help but wonder if Ball is doing the same with his own unique “thing”. Over-the-top for me to say? Maybe. But he does teach classes on lying and the art of lucid dreaming at the Art Institute of Chicago, so that should give him some cred. And he’s a poet.

How to Set a Fire and Why is a fun read, no doubt about it, but it’s also an emotional read, an inspirational read, an insightful read, and it’s encouraging. My plan is to keep the buzz on Ball going by recommending this book.

Make a comment View comment guidelines

Support local arts journalism

Your support will help us continue the important work of InReview in publishing free professional journalism that celebrates, interrogates and amplifies arts and culture in South Australia.

Donate Here


Show comments Hide comments
Will my comment be published? Read the guidelines.

. You are free to republish the text and graphics contained in this article online and in print, on the condition that you follow our republishing guidelines.

You must attribute the author and note prominently that the article was originally published by InReview.  You must also inlude a link to InReview. Please note that images are not generally included in this creative commons licence as in most cases we are not the copyright owner. However, if the image has an InReview photographer credit or is marked as “supplied”, you are free to republish it with the appropriate credits.

We recommend you set the canonical link of this content to to insure that your SEO is not penalised.

Copied to Clipboard

More Books & Poetry stories

Loading next article