The Arsonist by Sue Miller, book review: New England story fails to fire the senses

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The Independent Culture

Sue Miller, like her fellow American Anne Tyler, is an eloquent chronicler of the complexities of ordinary relationships, whose informal language belies the depths of her insights. Her 2005 novel, Lost in the Forest, longlisted for the Orange Prize, was a startlingly perceptive account of the sexual awakening of a teenage girl and the perils that lurk in the shadows of that blossom. It also powerfully examined bereavement.

Miller's tenth novel is set in a small New Hampshire town in 1998. Frankie Rowley is returning to stay with her parents, Sylvia and Alfie, in the house that was previously the family's summer retreat, and to which Sylvia and Alfie have retired. Frankie has worked for 15 years in East Africa as an aid worker, and is drained because of the challenges of corruption and civil war, and the knowledge that, being white, she will never experience the hardships the Africans endure. She is also flat emotionally after a series of affairs that accentuated the transience of her life in Africa.

Life with her parents brings its own problems. Alfie has dementia. Sylvia has always been brittle and jagged, and is increasingly resentful of Alfie, though resigned to the duty of caring for him. And simmering tensions between the affluent summer residents and year-round ones are heightened by a series of arson attacks targeting the homes of the summer residents. In the midst of this, Frankie starts a new relationship and is forced to examine what she wants from her life.

Miller's prose, narrated in the third person from the points of view of Frankie, Sylvia and Frankie's boyfriend, is colloquial and homely, almost folksy; occasionally I felt a fleeting sense of frustration, as if Miller was purposefully dumbing down to maintain the companionability of her voice, an unnecessary move as language used to describe the minutiae of lives can be simple but still elegant – consider the Canadians Mary Lawson and Alice Munro. Despite this, Miller nails the contradictory emotions and desires that are responsible for people so often bypassing the seemingly easy road to happiness.

Her depiction of Alfie's dementia is not as haunting nor as literary as Samantha Harvey's harrowing evocation in The Wilderness. But it is still moving and convincing. Miller also captures well the advantages and disadvantages of living in a small community: the role of gossip is quietly but devastatingly conveyed.

The themes are not as monumental as those Miller sometimes explores, so the pace can seem languid, but this is still a satisfying read.