The Arsonist by Stephanie Oakes
Hi! I am finally back after losing many copies of my review to the internet’s trigger-happy hands and phew… this is a long one. I do understand the irony of writing a review about starting fires in a blog dedicated to stopping them, but this does not relate at all to the bushfires and I hope I haven’t unintentionally offended anyone. Well enough of me! Here is the review!
‘The Arsonist’ by Stephanie Oakes is the Pastafarian of YA novels.
Instead of adhering to the now-stereotypical heart-pounding scene-changing YA mysteries that promise blood and murder on shiny blurbs, ‘The Arsonist’ exists in a fluid in-between state of genre, combining the slower pace and authentic setting of historical fiction, the in-depth exploration and character-writing of a contemporary commentary and the twisty slipperiness of a mystery novel.
Told from three different viewpoints, Oakes conceives every character fully-formed, establishing each character voice with such clarity, that every consecutive chapter overflows with singular personality and vigour.
“[There is] Molly Mavity … not a normal teenage girl. For one thing, her father is a convicted murderer, and his execution date is fast approaching. For another, Molly refuses to believe that her mother is dead, and she waits for the day when they’ll be reunited . . . despite all evidence that this will never happen.
Pepper Yusef … not your average teenage boy. A Kuwaiti immigrant with epilepsy, serious girl problems, and the most useless seizure dog in existence, he has to write a series of essays over the summer . . . or fail out of school.
And Ava Dreyman—the brave and beautiful East German resistance fighter whose murder at seventeen led to the destruction of the Berlin Wall—is unlike anyone you’ve met before.”
Oakes’ writing is sharp and pointed, a refreshing breather from popular flowery prose, and is suitably so, seamlessly bridging the gap between Molly and Ava’s timelines and piecing together the twists and turns to create a beautiful and surprising jigsaw when finally realised.
However, for me, the best part of the book was it’s exploration of deep themes.
As you can presumably predict based on the book’s title, there are many mentions of literal fire throughout the novel. The fire set by Walter Mavity that murdered an innocent family. The oil fires of Kuwaiti that killed Pepper’s father. And the fires Ava’s mother began that placed her family under the cruel eye of the Stasi. However, below the surface, it is the two-pronged symbolism of fire as both destructive and regenerative that was at the true core of the story; a powerful metaphor echoed through Oakes’ portrayal of how familial generations simultaneously reflect and contrast from each other. Using the Mavity family as an example, Walter Mavity, arsonist tendencies not only resulted in the loss of innocent lives, but also burned the fragile trust between him and his daughter, shattering their father-daughter relationship. Here we are shown the harmful side of fire. On the other hand, Molly used fire to burn her lighthouse, also representing how she has let go of the past that has smothered her life and is essentially starting anew.
The finesse with which Oakes handles these themes is really wonderful, and her writing of the bigger picture aspects of the novel is truly skillful.
HOWEVER (you knew it was coming… it’s not a guppy review without negatives)
I wish I could say the same for the smaller details of the plot…
Working special normally-only-confined-to-movie magic, the characters are thrown into oh so convenient situations, with side characters found in the click of a mouse, and passports developed impossibly fast. To me, this did not particularly influence my enjoyment of the book, but occasionally, I was thrown a little off-balance by the ease with which the protagonists discovered clues, escape criminal conviction and travelled to different countries. Also, the book was a little eccentric in some areas, so if you aren’t a fan of ‘quirky’ contemporary, I would not recommend this.
But as a whole, this book was, if not a rave-worthy read, an interesting one.
“And now I’ve arrived at the last moment of my life, the last words I will write in this journal. I am thinking of the first words of another book. It was a pleasure to burn.
More than anything, it was a pleasure to live.”
★★★★ (4.1 stars)