Celeste Ng’s first novel, Everything I Never Told You, a literary thriller about the drowning of a Chinese-American teenage girl in Ohio, became a New York Times bestseller and won half a dozen literary prizes including Amazon Book of the Year 2014. Her second, highly-anticipated novel, Little Fires Everywhere, is set in the neighbourhood where Ng grew up.

Like her first book, this one focuses on teenagers, siblings and race in contemporary America. But Ng doesn’t stop there – she takes on an impressive cast of characters to tackle uncomfortable issues of parenting, surrogacy, biological motherhood, white parents raising adopted children of a different race, maternal figures, and morality.

Sometimes, I want to love a book before I’ve even cracked open its spine. I want, more than anything else from a book, to be self-aware – to know its contours well enough to see them clearly. Though I read Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere from cover to cover in one sitting, I felt astonished at what the book seemed to ask for from the reader, from the characters – forgiveness and empathy. I wasn’t capable of even comprehending that ask at the close of the book, let alone actually capable of fulfilling it.

Lighting the fires

Little Fires Everywhere is set in Shaker Heights, Cleveland, USA. The town is systematically planned to ensure efficiency, safety and order. Children don’t have to cross a major intersection to reach their school – that’s the kind of community Shaker Heights wants to be. The Richardsons are an old-time family in these parts. Elena Richardson, the sturdy, loving matriarch of the clan, grew up in Shaker Heights and brings her college boyfriend back to her town. Their eventual marriage and successful careers lead to four children – Lexie, Trip, Moody, and Izzy.

The novel opens with the Richardsons’ house burning as the family, sans Izzy who has vanished, watch from across the street. Izzy is assumed to be the culprit, but why? This is the question that dominates the book, which traces the months leading up to the fire.

Rewind a few months, and Mia and Pearl Warren, mother and teenage daughter, arrive in Shaker Heights in a car that holds all of their belongings. They rent an apartment from the Richardsons, and an inescapable sequence of events is set in motion.

Pearl and Moody start a tentative, transformative friendship that soon envelops the other Richardson children. Izzy is drawn to the subversive idea of Mia – the artistic and carefree single mother becomes a haven for Izzy whose antics have long frustrated her own mother. Izzy becomes an apprentice to Mia. On the surface, she studies photography with Mia, but at a deeper, more disconcerting level she is slowly and selectively adapting Mia’s philosophy without accounting for the difference in their age or circumstances.

Both Elena and Mia are silently uncomfortable with the other’s influence on their children. Pearl spends most afternoons at the Richardsons, wearing their castoffs and watching their favourite TV dailies. Old family friends of the Richardsons adopt a Chinese infant from the foster care system.

The resurfacing of the birth mother ignites an ugly, length court battle on which Elena and Mia fiercely disagree. As Mr Richardson chooses to represent their family friends in court, and Mia sides with the birth mother, the slow collision of two families with different experiences of and opinions on money, purpose, and parenting become tragically inevitable.

Troubling questions

The court case troubles the murky waters of right and wrong, of the legal basis on which to decide whether a child’s mother can change her mind after giving the child for adoption, and of much else. I wrote the review several days after reading the book because I was distressed by the questions the novel raises. Can white parents make suitable parents for Asian children? What piece of culture will remain missing from the lives of those adopted children? Should negligent parents who abandon their children be given a second chance?

Nicole Chung is a Korean adoptee with white parents who has written articulately about the deep loss she felt for her birth family here. This is Us, a popular TV show on air now, looks thoughtfully at the childhood of a black son of white parents who makes a mark in his notebook every time he meets a new black person. Ng’s first book was compelling because it made us look anew at family, ambition, academic pressure and growing up in upsetting, confrontational ways. Her second was distressing because it poked at my comfortable boundaries between right and wrong. As I read, every bone in my body protested, “Surely the parents who bring you up are your only true family. Ng must have got this wrong.” But chipping away at that discomfort in the past few days, I was driven to think and read more widely on the subject.

Ng’s world constantly veers between planned order and instinct, rules and passion, and chosen motherhood and umbilical motherhood. The last two draw from the bottomless well literature paints maternal love as. Is one preferable to the other? Is Mia a good mother to Pearl? Is Izzy in need of a different kind of parental love? After you read Everything I Never Told You, you’ll know Ng doesn’t believe in easy answers or in solving the mystery for you.

As always, Ng’s prose is clear, devoid of rambling or diversion, and stunning in its ability to draw three-dimensional characters. The plot does occasionally squeak under the weight of the thorny but crucial questions she puts forward. With her first, she took away pieces of the certainty we’ve come to depend upon in thrillers. In her second, she does away with certainty entirely.

Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng, Penguin.