Love, Life, and Letters: White-Knuckled Noir in "How To Set Yourself On Fire"

by Jerome Spencer

“I can’t remember the last time I cried. But I can remember the first time I definitely didn’t.”


In the literary world, "How to Set Yourself on Fire" is what they call a page turner. Gripping in its terseness, Julia Dixon Evans' novel has the pull of a crime-noir without the crime. And instead of a two-dimensional protagonist with a murky past, it boasts a fully developed anti-hero whom invokes unrestrained empathy. And, like all good noir, there’s still plenty of moral ambiguity.

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The novel’s mystery centers around its narrator, Sheila, and a newfound fixation on a box of love letters addressed to her recently deceased grandmother. Sheila becomes intertwined with her one-sided perspective of the love affair as her life continues to fall apart around her. She befriends her neighbor and his twelve year-old daughter, reluctantly and haphazardly filling in as a surrogate mother. As the mystery unfolds and the past collides with the present, "How to Set Yourself on Fire" pulls the reader along, white-knuckled and wide-eyed.


The novel’s emotional levity relies on its economy of language. Cramming 56 chapters into 306 pages; each paragraph is entirely necessary, each sentence gets straight to the point and, more often than not, it hurts. Sometimes it hurts so bad that it burns. The emotion is inexorable while the humor is palpable and the story is skillfully acute. "How to Set Yourself" on Fire could almost be a “beach-read” if it were more acceptable to cry on the beach.


The novel’s ending, while unpredictable, is not surprising; showcasing Julia Dixon Evans’ aptitude for foreshadowing and character development while avoiding the always unsolicited “plot-twist”. Too honest for answered questions and resolutions all tied up in a pretty bow, "How to Set Yourself on Fire" is noir about the disarray of existence and the mystery of everyone around us. And it nails it.