Lucia Stanton, the teenage protagonist of Jesse Ball’s sixth novel, How to Set a Fire and Why, is intellectually precocious, cynical and broadly uninterested in social niceties. Or, as the blurb regrettably phrases it, ‘a super-smart, funny girl’. Her father is dead and her mother has suffered a mental breakdown, lives in a care facility and bears no resemblance to her former self (in Lucia’s words: ‘dad = dead, mom in a lunatic house’). So our protagonist resides with her impoverished aunt – a ‘dyed-in-the-wool anarchist’ with ‘enough money to live pitifully’ – in a garage with a single bed, converted just to the point of being habitable. After stabbing a classmate with a pencil (‘I am sorry that I only grazed his neck ... I thought I could do better than that’), Lucia is forced to enrol in a new school, where she soon discovers its Arson Club. At once, she finds purpose in the promise of destruction.
The text of the novel comes from Lucia’s notebook. This is her own account, her ‘Book of How Things Will Go’, and we are simply her ‘construction’ – a ‘fictional audience’. She recalls the past, predicts the future and meanders at times into side projects (lists, diagrams, photographs). After she