REVIEW: THE ARSONIST, BY SUE MILLER

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During one summer in a small New Hampshire town, tensions are ignited between the summer people and the locals after a string of fires spread across the landscape. Despite its time period, set in the 1990s during the Clinton years, the issues exposed during and after each conflagration seem timely.

Bud Jacobs, the editor of the local newspaper, writes about the impact of the arsonist:

“The sense of community that is the bedrock of small-town life is broken, suddenly.”

Home from a fifteen-year stint in Kenya doing aid work, Frankie Rowley finds herself caught up in the fear that overwhelms all the residents, as she also struggles with family issues. Her parents, Sylvia and Alfie, have retired to their former summer home in Pomeroy, but Alfie’s slow descent into dementia seemingly changes everything about the dynamic between them. Meanwhile, Frankie is at loose ends, undecided about what to do next and whether or not to return to Africa.

In Miller’s beautiful prose, the story of The Arsonist: A novel unfolds, while Frankie and newspaper owner Bud give in to the powerful pull between them.

We follow the tale from the perspectives of the various characters, as it sweeps back and forth through the years, revealing the relationships between them all and the paths that have led them to where they now are. We learn more about Sylvia’s teen years and how an unresolved relationship has informed her life in the subsequent decades.

Meanwhile, we must ask ourselves: Who is targeting the summer people in Pomeroy, and why? Could the frustrations and conflicts of the past be presenting themselves now? What will Frankie decide about her next project, and how can she escape the feelings of not belonging anywhere?

Themes of home and belonging, of the social context that surrounds us in our dwellings, and the divide across which hostilities are played out, bring the story to its somewhat nebulous conclusion, with still more questions than answers. A brief fast forward through the years gives us a glimpse of what might be, even as we puzzle over those unanswered questions. A lovely narrative that will never leave me. Five stars.

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