Mystery & Mental Illness: On Julia Dixon Evans’ ‘How to Set Yourself on Fire’

Evans’ characters battle depression and search for their own identities while solving a family mystery.


Julia Dixon Evans
Novel | 312 Pages | Reviewed: Paperback
978–1–945814–50–1 | First Edition | $16.95
Dzanc Books | Ann Arbor | BUY HERE

In her debut novel, Julia Dixon Evans gives readers an unlikable heroine who’s half-heartedly trying to solve a family mystery. Shelia is a mess. She’s drifting through life in her mid-thirties, getting fired or quitting temp job after temp job, occasionally stalking a stranger, and treating her mother fairly contemptuously for no good reason.

But a tragedy happens: Her grandmother passes away and leaves Shelia with a secret. A shoebox of letters from Harold, a man Shelia’s never heard mentioned before. The letters range from casual kindness, to obsessive pre-occupation:

“I must know. When can I see you again? When can I see your face and speak with you? I am not supposed to be a lonely man. My work keeps me very busy and engaged. My friends are sociable and loyal, though not as geographically near to me anymore as they used to be. But being so geographically near you but not being able to spend every waking minute with you feels incredibly lonely. I want to take everything I can get. You simply must find someone to take care of Ellen one morning and come over for a cup of coffee.”
(p. 135).

Harold’s words are moving, but the story is one-sided. Shelia doesn’t have her grandmother’s responses. All she knows about their possible liaison is that it ended.

While Shelia is on-again/off-again with trying to figure out what the letters mean in terms of her grandmother’s happiness, she also develops a friendship with her neighbor’s daughter, Torrey, a young girl who’s recently lost her own mother. They bond, not because Shelia is a responsible or dependable adult, but because of proximity and Shelia’s inability to remember Torrey is a young girl when she’s speaking to her. Torrey is a romantic and finds the letters too compelling not to investigate. More often than not, she’s pulling Shelia along to the library for research. Shelia hasn’t read a book in years, and she’s understandably wary:

“‘The only things we have going for us are our skin and our bones. Our ancestors, the shit we live in, the world — none of that is ours,’ I say. I feel incensed. ‘It’s not something we can control and it’s not something we’ll ever benefit from. The only inheritance I have is me.’”
(p. 150).

It is difficult to tell, sometimes, if Shelia is trying to cope with her own childhood disappointments (Her father left their family when she was still a child.) or if she might actually have a medical condition. She gets nosebleeds, passes out, and loses time regularly, but these symptoms only tend to appear when the going gets tough. Shelia, assisted by Torrey, has to find the answers she wants, but she also has to find something stronger to which to tether herself than to her lifelong fear of abandonment.

For me, Shelia’s self-destructive tendencies make her the most relatable character. She’s an average person whose life never really found a purpose beyond simple existence. She knows there are better ways to live your life, but she’s not motivated, in the beginning, to make the effort. Her depression seeps through the pages like the fog of inaction surrounding her life. It’s painful for those familiar with the disease and illuminating for others previously unable to understand.

At first, I cringed at some of Shelia’s antics, but as the story moves along, it’s clear her actions are a smoke signal for help or, at the very least, attention. Her most redeeming quality, by far, is her honesty with herself, the only person to whom (besides Torrey) she seems capable of not lying. Despite her unkindness at times, her unlikability, I admire that she sees her whole self, faults and all. And she challenges the people in her life to like, or even to love, her, regardless.

CETORIA TOMBERLIN is a writer living in Northwest Georgia who received her bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing from Berry College. Her work has previously appeared in Fairy Tale Review, NonBinary Review, Southern Women’s Review, and Spires, and she is a book reviewer for Mixed Diversity Reads. Find her at her website.
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