The moment I saw the cover for Pamela N. Harris’ newest novel This Town Is on Fire, I had to have it. The cover is fierce, the title is on point, and the description got me riled up. And it definitely did not disappoint.
Naomi Henry’s senior year gets turned upside down when her (white) best friend Kylie Brooks gets caught on camera calling the cops on two Black teens. She wants nothing more than to stand by her best friend’s side - they grew up together and are practically sisters after all - but a cloud hangs over their friendship and Naomi can’t help seeing everything in a new light. Tensions are high in their predominantly white town, but Naomi finds herself joining protests and alienating herself from her (white) friends as she finds her voice. But then the unthinkable happens - a bomb goes off and someone winds up dead.
You would think in 2023 that this book wouldn’t be so culturally relevant, but unfortunately that’s not the case. Racism is not something that disappeared with the passing of the Civil Rights Act and it is still running rampant today. This story is probably more relevant today than it was in years past.
Naomi is a high school senior who is just trying to find her place in the world and figure out who she is. But on top of that, she also has a reckoning with her identity as a Black woman. She is a complex, imperfect character who makes mistakes and has to learn from them (and live with their repercussions). Reading the story from her POV allows us inside the mind of someone who is deeply struggling with her entire world getting turned on its axis and stirs feelings of empathy for her struggles that probably would not exist had we just been witnesses on the sidelines.
Much like an episode of How To Get Away with Murder (which you should definitely watch if you haven’t already), the book opens in the present, after the bomb explosion, and jumps between past and present leading up to that moment. We aren’t told who dies until the very end, though there are hints and red herrings thrown in throughout to lead you toward one person or another. In this way, Harris creates a sense of mystery that kept me engage as I tried to figure out who was lost. Starting with the explosion also begged the question “how did they get here?” and was another thing that kept me turning page after page, frantic to get to the end.
A frustrating and heavy read at times, it is also one that feels incredibly important. It accurately portrays the vast difference in experience between white people and people of color, especially Black people. The difference in reaction between the white students and Black students exemplifies just how deeply engrained white privilege can be (and is) and hopefully it will be an eye opener to those who just don’t get it (but unfortunately, it probably won’t be).
This Town Is on Fire by Pamela N. Harris is available now and you can grab a copy for yourself here.
Disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of this book for free and have voluntarily written this review. If you purchase a copy using my Bookshop affiliate link above, not only will I receive a small commission (which will fuel my coffee and tea addiction and help to keep me up all night reading more books to recommend to you), but you will also be supporting indie bookstores like my local fave Linden Tree Books without whom this review would not be possible! If you prefer Amazon, visit my Amazon storefront and click on the list titled "2023 Book Recommendations."