The teenage narrator of Jesse Ball’s heartbreaking sixth novel, How to Set a Fire and Why, is Lucia, but as far as the world is concerned, she is nameless and worthless. When the story opens, we learn that she’s functionally orphaned. Her father is dead, her mother driven to such madness that she no longer recognizes her own child. Reduced to penury, Lucia lives with her elderly aunt Lucy in a converted garage whose rent they can’t afford. At one point, Lucia’s shoes are so run down that her toes poke through.
What she does have is her father’s old Zippo, and even this gets her into trouble when she attacks a boy at her school for daring to touch it. This gets her sent to another school, where she falls in with a loosely organized bunch of teenage pyromaniacs. The idea of burning things up and burning things down, to inflict hurt on a world that has inflicted hurt on her, captures Lucia’s imagination.
At times, the reader may not like Lucia very much. She lies, she cheats, she steals; her thoughts about her peers are uncharitable, to put it mildly; she smarts off to authority figures, often to her detriment. On the other hand, she’s devoted to her aunt and goes out of her way to visit her psychotic mother. Other adult authority figures rarely respect her, the kids in school despise her, her petty crimes come about because a lot of the time she doesn’t even have money to buy food.
Maybe, this angry, sad but hopeful book suggests, having no name has its benefits, especially for kids who have nothing to lose. In an age of grotesque inequality, it’s something to consider.