Starlight, originally published in 1967 (but with a setting that feels more like the 1950s than the late 1960s), was only the second book I’ve read by Stella Gibbons.
Until last week, I had only read Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm, which is a favourite comfort read of mine when suffering from the flu. Her other books were something I was faintly aware of but hadn’t looked into because – mainly – the descriptions and the covers (especially the one for Nightingale Wood) made them sound like chick-lit romance novels, and this is a genre that I just have no interest in. Other people may love the genre, and each to their own, I just rather pick something else.
Anyway, I picked Starlight because I was intrigued by the dark cover (not very romance-y at all) and the Highgate setting. (I once briefly lived in neighbouring Kentish Town.)
The story starts with two elderly sisters who share rooms in a cottage with eccentric old man. All of the tenants have limited means, and reading about their struggling to get by and relying on charity made for quite hard reading. Then we learn that the landlord, a feared “rackman”, is moving his wife into the cottage next door and it planning to make modernisations. This causes great concern for the tenants that are unable to afford the rent as it is.
Starlight is definitely not in the same style or in any other way comparable to Cold Comfort Farm. If anything, this was more like a Barbara Pym novel, except that Starlight was less subtle and more accute in defining the characters we are meeting, which was great.
But I still felt there was something brewing underneath. Something that is still undefinable at this point.
The social commentary in Starlight was pretty realistic, and also pretty grim, especially with respect to older characters, and the depiction of racial bias was pretty well done, too. Not as a trope, not as a cliche, but as pretty realistic depiction of 1950s/1960s suspicion toward the unknown.
It’s an interesting book on many levels, but it is a slow, slow reveal of the full story. I’m not usually a fan of glacial pacing, but I have to say that it was absolutely worth it in this story. There were unexpected turns in latter par of the book that had me laugh and cry and scratch my head and feel delighted that Gibbons lured me down a garden path and then totally surprised me. It was quite an exciting book by the end. Totally unpredictable. So weird, so dark, and yet so oddly happy.
I recommend it. It’s a bit dated in its outlook on romance/relationships but Gibbons was a very skilled writer that could pull off the oddest of stories. And this was an odd story.
I never felt I could pin down what was happening as the POV’s put forward were somewhat biased, but it was social realism playing with religion and magic and a general discussion of humanity. There were parts I definitely shook my fist at and other parts that were entirely moving.
Things definitely did not turn out to be what they first appear.
And seeing that the climax of the book is set on midsummer eve, I wonder whether there is a bit of authorial mischief going on here, with Gibbons taking up the role of Puck:
“If we shadows have offended,William Shakespeare – A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
If you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.”