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Monday, 20 January 2014

Book Review: Starlight by Stella Gibbons

Starlight is the fourth Stella Gibbons novel I've read (and I still haven't touched Cold Comfort Farm, the most famous). It centres on a run-down house in London where elderly sisters Gladys and Annie Barnes live with the eccentric Mr Fisher - he changes his name every month for variety - in the flat above. They get a shock one day when the house is abruptly sold to a 'rackman' and the residents fear for their survival. However, the new owner simply installs his wife, Mrs Pearson, and her new German maid, Erika, in the house in the hope that it'll improve his wife's health. His wife, we soon learn, claims to have been a medium in the past and the other residents of the house begin to think she's possessed by an evil spirit. Rounding out the cast are the vicar and his curate and Peggy Pearson, the daughter, amongst others.

This was a much darker novel than the others I've read by Gibbons but still comic in tone. The last quarter, specifically, starting with a horrific attack referred to so casually at first that the significance of it is downplayed until it intrudes on the house itself up until the final pages is very dark. It was creepier than I expected, given the light-hearted tone of much of the novel. The flashes of darkness didn't really prepare me for the climax.

In terms of characterisation, Gibbons succeeds once again. Gladys is a chatterbox, the perfect character to follow around, even if you have to reread her speeches a few times to realise what she's actually wittering on about (think Miss Bates in Emma). Her sister, Annie, is much quieter and the soft friendship which springs up between her and Mr Fisher is so slight that it could almost pass the reader by - only one character comments on it, and it's not chatterbox Gladys. Mr Fisher holds his own secrets, walking Hampstead Heath by night with a purpose not fully revealed until the end of the book. Gibbons certainly has an interest in foreigners acclimatising to their new surroundings - Erika is an interesting enough specimen, especially when Gladys takes it upon herself to teach her English and how to do things. As for the rest - Peggy and her employers feel like the most superfluous of the cast, but they do serve a purpose, while the vicar and curate provide a nice contrast to each other in terms of personality and the direction their faith takes them.

The beauty of having Gladys as a primary character is that you go off on tangents without really noticing, as she links one thing to another and talks to the point of driving everyone to madness. Her interactions with the vicar and, especially, the curate are the most hilarious in the book. The actual meat of the plot - the medium and her problems - doesn't take up as much space as you'd assume it would. Starlight is another Gibbons novel that covers life in all its forms and this variety is perhaps why I enjoy her novels so much.

Although I've had issues with her endings in the past, this time I actually thought the finale fitted the book. It brought us back, as it were, from the murky events of the previous chapter, and provided a decent ending for two of the most important characters.

I don't think any Gibbons novel will overtake the fondness I have for Westwood but I found Starlight to be enjoyable and, yet, thought-provoking. A few too many adverbs for my tastes but not to the detriment of the book as a whole.

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