This is written in the same vein as Winter Birds (Jim Grimsley) or Salvage the Bones (Jesmyn Ward); it is a look at the heartbreaks of poverty in southern America.
I enjoyed Playing with Matches, the tone was good and there were some great comments on different levels of poverty and reverse racism. However, the religious overtones just put me off. The first half of this novel is supposed to be the novel that Clea writes as an adult; the second half is her current day life and the effects of said novel on this life. I found the "novel" part to be very strong, but the grown up "real" part to be too overtly religious. It was also interesting to see Wall use this mechanism to comment on the power of the written word: "Words were tricky things: Nothing else had the power to put a man down. Nothing could pick him up so quickly."
As a kid growing up, Clea is never sure why she is an outcast. Is it because Auntie is relatively well off (defined as not needing foodstamps, but still wearing hand me down clothes) or because her mother is the town prostitute or because she is one of the few white folks in the parish? Ultimately, Shookie declares it to be race: "'White girl, you never gonna hear the whole of it', she says. White girl, there it is, poured out of her mouth. I think, After all these years."
Ultimately, I was disappointed that Wall felt she had to wrap everything up with a disney-fied (of sorts) ending. Reconciliation with Thomas is on the horizon; Clea has come to grips with her past (she will not be arrested and she has made friends with the enemies from childhood); she is going to rebuilt a house on her mama's land; it was all just too nicely wrapped up for my taste. I was also annoyed that all of the older women with whom Clea had disagreed as a child turned out to be spurned lovers of inmates. It was just too tidy for a novel that was supposed to be (ultimately) about the messiness and heartache of human relationships.
Overall it was a compelling book and had some great commentary on human interaction, race, and poverty.