Raffles Reads: Year On Fire

Reading Time: 3 minutes

By Claire Jow (23A01B)

Raffles Reads is a collaboration between Raffles Press and Times Reads which aims to promote a reading culture among Singaporean students.

Rating: 3.5/5

It started out with a kiss, how did it end up like this?

Year On Fire opens with sixteen-year-old Immie wondering about the kiss that “blew up” her life: a kiss with her best friend’s boyfriend that she did not have, but had claimed responsibility for. The novel follows Immie, her brother Arch, and her best friend Paige as they navigate the messy ups and downs of their junior year in high school—all while there’s a mystery arsonist on the loose.

Tensions begin high as Paige has an icy-cold attitude towards Immie from the very first page, and escalate even further with the arrival of a hot new transfer student, Ro, from London that Immie starts to fall for, despite the fact that Paige has boldly called “dibs” on him. Just as Immie thinks things can’t get any weirder this year, the fire alarm rings—someone has set the girls’ bathroom on fire, and the mystery of who it could possibly be pervades the entire book.

Year On Fire shines in its authentic writing style, with its teenage characters’ complicated thoughts and feelings conveyed in a nuanced manner. It does not shy away from heavier topics such as infidelity or the recklessness of teenage sexual encounters, discussing issues adolescents can face both in school and at home. 

In particular, the way the conflict in Arch and Immie’s family is presented is written very carefully—despite their father’s occasional violent outbursts, both his children are hesitant to label him as “abusive”, often saying that most of the time their father is a decent and kind man. Yet, they are aware on some level that the dynamic his behaviour creates in the family is not healthy or normal—and this internal conflict is something that they both have to grapple with throughout the book. 

It is very much a coming-of-age novel, with themes of discovering oneself and the struggle between choosing to leave or stay in one’s hometown being reflected in Immie and Arch’s arcs in a sincere and authentic way.

Buxbaum’s characters are also rather likeable; this writer particularly enjoyed the dynamic between Arch and Jackson, Paige’s now ex-boyfriend, and found the character of Paige sympathetic despite the “mean girl” persona she puts on. Ro was similarly refreshing and relatable.

However, personally, Immie was slightly frustrating to read about, since most of the book’s conflict hinges on the fact that she lets everybody walk all over her—taking the fall for another’s kiss, being afraid to pursue a relationship with Ro because she respected her friend’s “dibs”.

Pacing-wise, the book was a little bit slow, and the fact that there was no clear plotline that emerged until the halfway point made it hard to be consistently engaged. It felt like a lot of the book was spent on repeating ideas that had already been established at the beginning—Ro’s homesickness, for example, or Immie’s anxiety about the kiss, though this does make sense with the book’s more realistic, slice-of-life style.

In hindsight, this writer does concede that the main conflict that the entire book is structured around is reminiscent of the oft-criticised miscommunication trope, wherein the tension is created from a lack of proper communication for whatever reason. Nothing really happens to make the characters decide to tell the truth, it comes out after Paige’s stressed-induced mental breakdown in which she decides to shave her head—at which point the twins decide to stop lying, despite the fact that the two events don’t really logically follow each other.

However, this sort of behaviour—a lack of proper communication skills, making seemingly minor things out to be much more dramatic than they actually are—are in line with the experience of real-life teenagers.

The plot may have benefitted from the acts of arson having a greater impact or involving higher stakes. The final reveal felt slightly underwhelming and less significant since the burning of various school facilities throughout the novel felt more like background noise than an essential part of the main plot—the arson happened at random points throughout the novel with characters occasionally wondering who the culprit was, but the incidents themselves were never directly related to the main plot.

Overall, Year On Fire is a heartfelt read that captures the turmoil one can feel in their adolescent years, and is certainly recommended for anyone who wants to see themselves—or their younger selves—reflected on paper.

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