In Ashley Woodfolk’s latest novel, Nothing Burns as Bright as You, readers journey through the fierce relationship of two teen girls after they set a fire. In the hours following the event, the narrator unravels the relationship (past, present, and maybe future), chronicling the friendship that blooms into much more – and into something wild that teeters on the edge of dangerous.
Truthfully, I don’t even know where to begin with this review. This. Book. Is. Everything. So rarely do I get pulled into a story the way Woodfolk pulled me in with this one. From the first spark down to the last ember, her words paint a vibrant, enrapturing picture. Every description, whether literal or figurative, is deliberate and purposeful. Woodfolk’s gorgeous, lyrical style brought every scene to life and will make readers feel as though they’re right there with the characters, experiencing the events with them. Woodfolk also conveys the highest peaks and deepest valleys of her two characters’ relationship. They feel as real as you and me, bursting off the page in a messy and glorious blaze of love and friendship.
Every ounce of this book is wholly absorbing, but I was especially taken by Woodfolk’s decision to write in second person. For starters, it immediately grabs readers and yanks them into the story. While it’s obvious the actual person the narrator addresses is the other girl, it’s so easy to believe it could be you. Moreover, the POV shapes the raw, profound honesty of the narrator. As she relays the major beats of the story, she provides insight into the complex nature of a deep, deep friendship and a first love – one that’s tumultuous and all-consuming and worth it in the end, no matter what happens. Woodfolk constructs a timeline that brings readers through her characters’ past and present. She intermingles curious interludes of lies and truths (titled as such) that highlight the hurt and longing and growth of the narrator.
In general, I was positively captivated by Woodfolk’s two main characters: the narrator and her person (who I will refer to as “You” from here on out). Early in the book, the narrator establishes herself and You as opposites: the former being like water, and the latter like fire. She draws a contrast between the two of them that seems as beneficial as it is precarious; water may tame a fire, but the narrator only works in tandem with You, never trying to smother her flame, only stoke it in a way that’s affectionate. While nearly everything readers learn about You comes from the narrator, Woodfolk manages to write her in a way that still allows intrigue and some sort of attachment to her. Like the narrator, readers want to go beyond You’s guarded nature, to learn more about her. I find this is especially true with the avoidance of names, and the comparisons the narrator draws to sacredness. As the narrator and You know precisely who’s being addressed, names aren’t necessarily needed. However, for me it felt as though the narrator (and Woodfolk) avoided naming You because doing so would somehow tarnish her sanctity, as though her name is this ineffable prayer meant only for the two of them. And there’s just something so utterly beautiful about that.
Similarly, the significance of opposites remains in play through the entirety of the book, and it’s perhaps the most powerful aspect. Along with the contrast between the characters, I was struck by the relationship the narrator has with her body. Woodfolk examines how young girls’ – especially Black girls’ – bodies are perceived and how detrimental that perception is. Through the narrator, readers see how it causes her to feel foreign and powerless in her own skin, even if she also recognizes it as entirely hers. But despite this, the narrator also has steadfast agency. She gives You agency in the way she describes (and, really, worships) her.
Furthermore, the narrator and You carry an immense power. They are filled with chaos, their actions stemming from love and anger and a general protectiveness. They take up space and are unapologetic about it. Still, they forget sometimes that they should be unapologetic, that they deserve to take up every last inch of space. Yet with every ebb and flow of their story, that power remains as they (but particularly the narrator) learn to love and be loved, by themselves and each other.
Nothing Burns as Bright as You is a mesmerizing wildfire of a book. It’s an incendiary, passionate queer love story that burns bright, fast, and refuses to fizzle out. And while the book ends, the story doesn’t; readers will most certainly feel the lingering effect of the book long after they finish reading. It overflows with lightness that mixes with just as much darkness. Its urgency and aching can feel intense and overwhelming (in the best way), but it never loses sight of the immense tenderness blanketed within. Woodfolk doesn’t waste a single page, or a single word. She creates an art piece that viciously demands to be read in one sitting, and then re-read, and then re-read again.
Nothing Burns as Bright as You releases on April 5. Pre-order your copy here.