Category Archives: Short Review

Short Review of How to Set a Fire and Why

Jesse Ball is one of the novelists working at the moment who is really pushing the art form in interesting directions. His previous novel, A Cure for Suicide, was equally entrancing. However, the whole ambiguity-as-climax technique is getting a little tired, though it is nowhere near as on the nose as the ending of Inception, for example. Ambiguity in literature gives life and tension to the work, but to repeatedly structure a story to arrive at that particular conclusion is to run the risk of M. Night Shyamalan-ing oneself.

And it’s not just Ball’s style that seems familiar. At one point about a third of the way through, How to Set a Fire and Why really started to feel (a lot) like The Catcher in the Rye updated for the twenty-first century. The main character, Lucia Stanton, started sounding a lot like Holden Caulfield. Intelligent, yet disaffected, and at that particularly teenage stage of viewing morality in terms of high contrast. Both are full of moral pronouncements tailored to scenarios far more specific than actually encountered.

Like Holden, Lucia is also going through this stage of maturation without guidance and direction. This lack of direction obscures their foresight leaving them at the mercy of impulse, particularly when the impulses are simply too far removed from the theoretical scenarios for them to rely upon their own inchoate moral sensibility.


Ball is a talented and inventive writer who is (gently) pushing narrative boundaries and providing us with some amazing sentences. Ball’s style tends to the dreamlike anyways, which may be painting him into a corner as far as the search for an authentic ending is concerned. A climax which is too concrete might just disrupt the whole delicate house of cards that he has constructed. Both novels that were mentioned are delightful and invigorating reads that, despite themselves, don’t seem to satisfy. How to Set a Fire and Why is a blistering, yet ultimately ephemeral, read.


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Short Review of The Girl on the Train

Any story told from multiple points of view will contain plenty of conflicting information. Imagined slights; misheard snippets; the brain’s impulse to compensate for inadequate data and knowledge. These are the constant underpinnings of human subjectivity. They are what give us agency but also isolate our experiences away from universality, producing experience that “is ringed round for each one of us by that thick wall of personality through which no real voice has ever pierced on its way to us, or from us to that which we can only conjecture to be without.”1

A precarious situation is this finding-ourselves-in-the-world. But now add further impediments: addiction, paranoia, trauma. The possibility of knowing oneself already reduced; the possibility of truly knowing someone else a dangerous illusion. Perhaps the most sincere are the most misleading. When faced with three unreliable narrators the mystery can transmute in an instant.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins is a thriller about what we think we saw, what we think we did. What we think we remember.

After all, what is a mystery book if not the archaeology of the surprising connections between ourselves and others that hide away from our own limited point-of-view.



1 Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2005), 153.

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Filed under Literature, Short Review