Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Book Review: With The Fire On High by Elizabeth Acevedo

With The Fire On High follows Emoni Santiago, a 17-year-old girl with a young daughter she's raising along with her grandmother, as she takes a culinary arts course and tries to channel her natural talent with food into something which will help her build a future for herself. As she goes through the year, she'll learn not just about food, but about family, falling in love again, and using her skills in the kitchen to help others.

I bought this after Elizabeth Acevedo's The Poet X, which deservedly won the Carnegie, blew me away when I read it. After my ridiculously long reading slump I finally got around to reading it this week and I'm so glad I did. I was expecting another verse novel, probably a sign of just how out of the loop I've been for a year or two, but Acevedo is as wonderfully gifted at prose as she is at poetry; her lyrical language makes the book a delight to read.

I mentioned in a previous review (Loveboat, Taipei by Abigail Hing Wen) that I really love characters with a particular passion in their life and Emoni, with her delight in preparing food, definitely fits the bill there. It was fascinating to read about her making various meals for family and friends, and others, and the effect which her food had on them, and the descriptions were enough to make my mouth water. On that note, as much as I enjoyed reading about her natural aptitude for choosing flavours which would go well together, I also really liked the fact that the chef teaching her culinary arts class was a hard-ass about doing things properly and following recipes, stressing the importance of knowing when to experiment and telling her why it could be vital to do things as instructed. The relationship between Emoni and love interest Malachi is a beautifully written slow burn romance but it's perhaps the growing mutual respect between Emoni and the chef, and the changing relationship between Emoni and her grandmother as Emoni realises that her grandmother has other things in her life as well as her family, which really made the novel special for me. As well as the Emoni/Malachi romance, I really loved the romance between Emoni's best friend Angelica and her girlfriend Laura, with Angelica in particular being a really warm, fun and supportive character.

Speaking of family, I thought this was a nuanced and touching portrayal of the trials and the joys of a teenage mother. Emoni's situation is never glossed over as being easy; we see just how hard she and her grandmother have to work to take care of Emma, and the judgment she faces from other people - even Emma's father's family - but we also see how much her love for the girl she refers to as Babygirl keeps her going through tough times. I also thought the portrayal of Emoni's own father - who flits in and out of her life, and isn't a particularly good parent but in many ways is a caring, compassionate person who always strives to do what's best for his community, even at the expense of his family, was a really interesting one.

I was rooting for Emoni to succeed while reading the book despite not really knowing what success would look like for her - as she doesn't, for much of the novel. She clearly has an outstanding natural talent for food but she's unsure whether studying further is the best way to make use of that talent. I was hugely invested in what decision she'd make and Acevedo's ending to the story definitely didn't let me down here.

Overall this is a massive recommendation to anyone wanting a truly gorgeously-written YA contemporary novel packed with memorable characters.

With The Fire On High is published in the UK by Hot Key Books. 

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