Lies like wildfire by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez

cover image

Trigger Warning: California wildfire, violence, and mentions of sexual and domestic violence. Also contains sex scenes and drug use. A tight-knit group of teenagers celebrate the beginning of their summer holidays at their favourite swimming hole, The Gap, above Sierra Nevada town, Gap Mountain, California. They are carelessly chatting about their future plans when, during an argument, they accidentally start a deadly wildfire that quickly changes their lives, and their close friendship, forever.

Alvarez perfectly dedicates her novel: “For good people who do bad things”; this, in a nutshell, is the discussion throughout this novel, which explores complex philosophical ideas in a context that is attractive and relatable to teenagers (there is even a mention of contemporary musical artist, Billie Eilish!). Hannah, our protagonist, is the sheriff’s daughter, and considers herself to be the moral compass of their friendship group. She soon discovers that life is complex and her self-identity is tested, artfully, without Alvarez providing clear answers. The structure of her novel is divided into chapters that reflect the timeline, state of disaster, and fatalities, making it easy to follow, and excitingly fast-paced as it starts in media res and then jumps back to the beginning of events. Alvarez has created a group of relatable teenagers whose lives could not be more different, who are suddenly hit with complex issues even without wildfire: wealth disparity, unrequited love and sexual desire, body image and puberty, domestic violence, and family responsibility, just to name a few. Set in the context of a disaster (wildfire) makes the novel exciting and provides potential for educational use in teaching about similes, metaphor, and motifs, as well as complex discussions about morality and ethics. This is reminiscent of John Marsden’s 1993 classic, Tomorrow When the War Began, in its style and appeal. It is hard to put down and will surely make even the most skeptical of teenagers into fans. Genre: Psychological crime thriller.

Themes: Disasters, Crime, Social justice, Morality, Ethics, Friendship, Puberty, Sex/desire, abuse, Body image.

Amelie Bottrill