The Arsonist, by Stephanie Oakes
© 2017 Penguin Random House
This one sat on our bookshelf for almost a year before my wife read it, but as soon as she finished she got me to read it, and now I'm kicking myself for not reading it sooner. More than once I live-texted my wife as I read, keeping her up-to-date on which jaw-dropping reversal of fortune I had just witnessed. The Arsonist has twists and turns, game-changing revelations and appalling betrayals, each one following close on the heels of another. At first, the bizarre cover art turned me off (though full disclosure: I read an advance copy, so the cover art and text of your version might be different), but once I started reading I quickly found the main characters engrossing. The Arsonist has three protagonists, all teenagers: epic-level weirdo and social pariah Molly Mavity, seizure-prone Kuwaiti immigrant Ibrahim "Pepper" Al-Yusef, and . . . well, the third protagonist is complicated.
The third protagonist is Ava Dreyman, and we mostly learn about her through her posthumously-published 1989 diary, which details her escape from East Germany in the mid-80s, followed by her return to rescue her mother, and her (apparent?) death at the hands of a high-ranking Stasi officer. But as Molly and Pepper delve deeper into the mystery of Ava's death—which intertwines with the secrets kept from both of them by their respective parents—they are forced to question not only Ava's story, but the narratives which they've both built up to define their own lives and identities.
Oakes' gripping prose ricochets from viewpoint to viewpoint, rotating with blinding speed between Molly, Pepper, and excerpts from Ava's diary: which, in this fictional universe, is a large part of the reason the Berlin Wall came down in the first place. The shocking tale of Ava's state-sanctioned torture and death galvanized the downtrodden East German public and helped give them the courage to stand up to their monstrous rulers and its vast network of spies and informants; a sort of East German Anne Frank, if you will. But hero-worship makes us blind to realities we would often rather forget, or wish we had never known: as Captain Mal once said, "every man ever got a statue made of him was one kind of sumbitch or another." Turns out that little chestnut applies to teenage girls, too (though I won't say exactly how).
|The Palast der Republik, East Berlin|
Overall, I give The Arsonist the very highest marks, even in its unedited pre-publication form. Switching with ease between the hilarious and the horrifying, between snappy dialogue and heart-wrenching examinations of grief, adolescence, parenthood, and trauma and healing (both emotional and physical), The Arsonist is an adrenaline-fueled thrill ride that somehow finds time to sneak in an emotional sucker-punch or two when you're least expecting them.