Book review conducted by PTM’s own, Shannon Stockdale-Elftman.
Do you read speculative fiction as a form of escapism or as a way to better understand our world? Halfway through my reading of Alix E. Harrow’s newest novel, Starling House, I found myself wondering if speculative fiction is primarily a means of escape for most, or a way to view our world through that delightfully warped mirror of fiction.
Starling House is set in Kentucky, and the edges of this gothic fantasy are smudged and textured with the history of that locale. Coal mining, giant earth haulers, slavery, poverty, and desperation abound. If there is one driving theme it is to answer Langston Hughes eternal question in the poem “Harlem”: What happens to a dream deferred?
The characters in this novel are not only dealing with their own deferred dreams but with the town’s history. The main character, Opal, lives a reality that is outside the norm. She is young and solely responsible for her teenage brother, who is something of a prodigy. However, they are poor. Poor like living in a hotel room their dead mother secured for them through a bet. Poor like eating cold Pop-Tarts and arguing over picante chicken ramen noodles. While these things may be the staple of an undergraduate diet, there is one difference. There is hope for the future as an undergraduate, and the characters at the start of Stalking House have decidedly little hope. Opal wants to get her brother, Jasper, into a posh boarding school and get him the hell out of the dead-end, small town of Eden, Kentucky.
Early in the novel, she is offered a way to do just that. Arthur, the current owner of the Starling House, hires her to clean and agrees to pay her an exorbitant amount to do so, partly driven by his own guilt. It is an amount of money that will allow her to get her brother out of Eden. The problem? Well Starling House is, of course, haunted. The question is, by what? The ghost of the original owner? The demons of the town’s own past? Deferred dreams?
The longing of Opal and Arthur is something anyone can relate to. They just want things to be different. Their years of suppressing their own dreams and desires for others becomes like the sweet ache of a bruise. This is not a typical, slow burn romance. This story asks us to examine the role of martyr for both the supposed beneficiary and the ones doing the sacrificing. It is also an exploration of unhealed trauma, both the generational and deeply ingrained, and the visceral, daily trauma of life. The story touches on some of the festering wounds of our history, and tries, in its way, to suck out some of that poison.
Does it succeed? I suspect some reading this story who live in coal country, or as descendants of slaves, or in extreme poverty might say no. What we do get from this book, however, is a sense of justice, something hard enough to find in the real world, but oh so satisfying in a fiction setting.
We also get a happy ending, which anyone who has read an Alix E. Harrow book will know is almost a given. Some reviewers have complained about her happy endings. Such as The Ten-Thousand Doors of January, her debut. I don’t feel like it’s giving too much away though to say both books end happily, because the concept of a happy ending doesn’t really encapsulate what a character must go through to get there, the journey that makes the ending just that much sweeter, or what they might have to give up along the way to reach that destination.
However, it did leave me wondering, if Harrow was trying to write a gothic fantasy that relies so much on our own “reality” is the happy ending realistic? Doesn’t it defeat her purpose? For this reader, one who grew up poor in a different kind of dead-end environment, I’d say she did exactly what she set out to do. Opal’s story reminds us that hope has power, that dreams have power. Sometimes the power to hurt us, sometimes the power to heal. The fact that it feels deeply “uncool” to admit that I still believe that is a testament to how far we’ve all fallen into the darkness. It is an act of hope to write or create art, an act of hope to appreciate beauty, and sometimes an act of hope to get up in the morning and face the shitty world we find ourselves in. If Harrow brings home a reality that is also laced with that hope, I personally think that is a fine balance indeed.
Perhaps, to go back to Langston Hughes and another poem he wrote, also titled “Harlem”:
So we stand here
On the edge of hell
And look out on the world
What we’re gonna do
In the face of what
Starling House may not carry the weight of the past as delicately as it needs to, but it does tell a story that allows us the room to wonder, “what we’re gonna do,” with the world we do have, and to hope that we also get our deserved (happy) ending.